Natural Birdsmanship – Understanding/Treating Behavior Problems in Imprinted Birds Michael Doolen, DVM From Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital, 225 Monmouth Rd., Oakhurst, NJ 07755
Abstract: A growing trend in the practice of avian medicine has been the increasing numbers of pet birds that have presented with complaints of having developed severe behavior problems. The same stress factors leading to the development of these problems have often been responsible for the development of severe medical problems. In the past, an accurate understanding of the nature of the causes of these problems has been lacking in the literature. The basis for developing an understanding of the problems has included an increased understanding of the natural instinctive behaviors of these birds, coupled with a realization of the consequences of the management strategies employed and recommended by the pet bird industry. The strategy the author has incorporated for treatment has included a focus on the modification of both the behavior of the owner and of the pet.
Introduction: The increase in the number of birds presented with severe behavior problems has caused a lot of frustration for both owners and avian practitioners. These problems include feather destruction, mutilation, exaggerated screaming, aggression, fear and phobias and inappropriate reproductive activity.
The wide range of recommended cures for these problems suggests that there is no single remedy. The emerging realization of many people is that the common practice of hand-raising and imprinting these birds and of cutting their wing feathers off before they fledge represents the beginning of the nearly inevitable development of these problems. Since it is not likely that the pet bird industry is going to stop these injurious practices, it is important that avian practitioners develop an understanding of the natural behavioral instincts of these birds and the psychopathoetiology of these problems. Only then will they be enabled to develop meaningful treatment plans for their afflicted patients. Management of these birds is a compromise between the state of a natural flock and the artificial state of the human/bird flock. In this presentation the author will first review this natural state, and then describe the psychopathoetiology of the behavior problems. Finally, the author will review a set of treatment strategies that have been used in the successful resolution of many of these problems.
Natural Instinctive Behavior of the Flocking, Prey Bird
The importance of understanding natural behavior
Helping the owner understand natural behaviors
Most owners are largely unaware of the natural instincts, behaviors, and strategies that their pets possess. They tend to view their pets as little animated dolls, expecting them to behave in the human ways that the pet bird industry has led them to expect. They believe that these bird babies they have purchased will forever retain their baby-like status and are often mortified by the behaviors they begin to display as they attempt to grow up. This author believes strongly that it is our responsibility to enlighten these owners of the reality of the wild behavioral nature of these animals. Without such an understanding, a successful, long term harmonious relationship is not a realistic expectation. Compliance with any recommendations requires a logical understanding of why they must make the changes recommended. Making most of these changes requires a significant commitment and increase in the amount of time and work involved in developing and maintaining a social structure in their human/bird flock that is required to ensure success.
The pitfalls of anthropomorphism
Experience has suggested – even proven – that an anthropomorphic approach to animal management is generally not very successful. Animals are animals and we are humans. We are different. This should be obvious, but for various reasons, people tend to think of animals as extensions of themselves. Under many circumstances, this seems harmless enough, but when it comes to developing a stress-free, harmonious relationship with any animal, this approach has a lot of problems. These problems are often insidious in their manifestation. Owners often say with apparent dismay things like, “that never used to bother him”, or “she never used to do that”. Sound familiar?
A recent example of public and widespread proof of this concept came when the movie “Horse Whisperer” came out. This movie is the true story of a man who seemed to be able to actually communicate with these animals using their language, rather than trying to teach them our language. The character in the movie was actually based on the writings of a man named John Solomon Rarey, who wrote a book in 1862 called The Complete Horse Tamer. The natural concept of communicating with animals is not a new one, but is recently rediscovered. The text is available at: http://www. rarey.com/sites/jsrarey/. Accessed April 23, 2006. This man was able to “tame” a wild horse quickly and easily. No bucking broncos or “breaking the spirit” of the animal to force it to comply. It was as if he simply asked them to be friends and they agreed easily, obeying his wishes without a fight. His whole concept was actually quite simple and elegant. He observed their behaviors in the natural setting. He paid close attention to the social interactions of wild horses in a wild herd and learned their rules and ways. He then learned to emulate these behaviors and found that he was able to easily become a part of their herd. It seemed as if the animals were much more concerned about the way he behaved than the way he appeared when it came to whether they would accept him or not. The idea has become very popular very quickly amongst horse enthusiasts who have begun to learn his techniques and enjoy a much greater level of success with their horses. There are now many opportunities to learn the details of “natural horsemanship” from many trainers.
More recently, a man named Cesar Millan has come out with a TV series called “The Dog Whisperer”. Available at: http://shop.nationalgeographic.com. Accessed April 23, 2006. He has used exactly the same approach with a large pack of dogs he maintains. He has developed an uncanny understanding of their social structure, their rules, and their communications. He goes into people’s homes to help with behavior problems they are experiencing with their dogs. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter the exact nature of the problem - his approach to the solution is always nearly the same. He teaches owners to understand the social structure of a dog pack and gives them training in behaving and communicating in “dog language”. The results he achieves in a very short time are simply astounding. Before their exposure to the methods Caesar employs, many owners complain that they don’t believe their problem can be solved. After watching him solve behavior problems in human/dog “packs”, people often remark that he is a real miracle worker. In reality, nature is the real miracle. He has simply gained a realistic and in-depth understanding of the miracle of the set of pack strategies that dogs instinctively utilize in their social structure. He is also very good at demonstrating the ways that owners can insert themselves into this pack as the pack leader in a way that the dog understands and “miraculously” responds to. His message is simple. Learn the pack way and commit to practicing it. This requires that the owner commit to an increased time practicing the art of being a pack leader. It also requires a shift in the owner’s perspective from that of a parent with a funny-looking human baby to that of a pack leader who acts like a dog towards their pet who isn’t a human baby, but is a dog. When owners make this commitment to accepting an understanding of natural behavior instincts and to the time required and begin treating their pet like the dog leader in a pack of dogs would treat it, the “miraculous” improvements in the behavior problems are automatic.
This author has found over the years that helping the owner of a pet bird that has developed behavior problems to develop a similar understanding of the natural instincts and behavior of these birds has a similar effect on the likelihood that the owner will accept and embrace the recommendations that lead to real improvement. Unfortunately, improvement may take longer than with the dogs, due to the nature of the requirements. A dog owner can instantly commit to and practice the daily walking exercises Caesar recommends and begin acting more like a dog and less like a human’s parent. Some degree of improvement is often seen very quickly. In the case of the bird with behavior problems caused by over dependency, for example, one of the main requirements necessary for real success involves allowing the bird’s wings to regrow and helping the adult who did not learn to fly at an appropriate young age to fledge and gain and practice (daily) master flight skills. This can take months to achieve and requires a great deal of patience and time commitment. Success also often depends on a commitment to rearrange the physical and social structure in the human/bird environment which is sometimes just not very practical for the average owner. Most of these owners had no idea when they first purchased their “baby” just how much commitment to time spent and lifestyle changes would be necessary to achieve true harmony in the relationship. They have been led to believe by the industry that owning a pet bird is easy. It’s not. These treatment strategies and others will be discussed in detail below. Not surprisingly, there is a man on the internet who calls himself the “bird whisperer”. Available at: http://www.thebirdwhisperer.com/. Accessed April 23, 2006. Some of his techniques are controversial and involve restraint techniques. On the surface, some people are concerned that his techniques appear cruel, but under certain circumstances and used in a certain way, these techniques may also have merit and usefulness. This subject will be explored further below.
Reproduction, not survival as the life goal of the wild animal “Survival of the fittest”
Natural selection is a phenomenon that is hard to deny. There are thousands of examples documented of adaptations animals have made in response to selective pressures they have experienced. These may be physical adaptations, like body color that allow more efficient camouflage or they may be behavioral instincts that allow for more efficient and successful hunting or avoidance of being hunted. If one examines the various physical and behavioral adaptations that wild animals display, it becomes obvious that most (if not all) of these adaptations ultimately lead to more successful survival. To a wild animal, in the larger scheme of nature, survival equals the ability to perpetuate the species. In other words, an animal only needs to stay alive in order to reproduce. This concept is reinforced at every level in the animal kingdom. Consider the gorilla male that kills the head male in a troupe in order to become the new leader, and then proceeds to kill all the baby gorillas in the group. In his perspective, the presence of another male’s babies prevents the females from producing and raising babies that carry his genes. If his goal is to perpetuate his particular set of genes, then he would be wasting his time providing for and protecting females that are raising another male’s babies. Another example involves birds. Each spring, many abandoned baby birds are presented to the veterinary hospital and wildlife rehabilitator. If a wild bird normally produces 4 young in a season and one or two of the babies are ejected from the nest by a storm or predator, it is common to observe that bird abandoning the remaining babies to start a new clutch. From an energy-efficiency standpoint, it doesn’t take a lot more energy to feed and raise four babies than just one or two. It is in her best interest to start over with four new babies, giving her increased probability of successfully producing four viable offspring that will contribute to the survival of the species. There are countless examples of this concept in the literature.
It would be very arrogant and foolish of mankind to imagine that the pet birds that are raised in captivity and are allowed to retain their reproductive hormones have any different ultimate goal. Individuals of all species are born (or hatched) possessing a set of innate behavioral tendencies that have been developed by natural selection over thousands of years. In the case of many species, including the psittacine group, the behaviors resulting from these innate tendencies seem to also be modifiable with experience and learning. This makes our job of analyzing and understanding the behavior problems of any given pet bird very challenging. The circumstances and experiences of each individual can vary dramatically. Their behavior may seem difficult to understand if one does not take all of the possible variable factors in their own unique artificial physical and social environment into account and compare these experiences with those a wild bird of the same or similar species would be exposed to. Interestingly, as discussed below, there are a few common strategies that may be employed to help achieve successful improvement in the behavior problems that may help, regardless of the exact nature of the problem.
Survival strategies The “fight or flight” reflex and the ability to fly
Flight is a strategy that is employed by other creatures besides birds, but birds are the group that has taken the ability to the highest level. It provides the predator a highly efficient means of hunting and also provides the prey species an excellent means of escape. It also provides a very efficient means of transportation, allowing the bird to take advantage of a wider range of opportunities to utilize food and territory resources that otherwise may not be available to them. Most of the higher vertebrates possess the physiologic reflex called the “fight or flight” reflex. This is the basis for the ultimate personal level of defense. It serves as a warning system and causes nearly instant changes in the body that enable the animal to deal with sudden danger. A bird may suddenly take flight in response to a potentially dangerous stimulus, then decide whether there was a true danger or not. It usually takes place before any conscious judgment about the danger can be made. Prey birds don’t usually use the “fight” response unless they are cornered or otherwise physically unable to take flight. In the pet bird with clipped wings and/or the inability to fly due to the fact that they have never learned to control their instinctive flight response, there are different possible consequences of the sudden activation of the reflex in different individuals. In the bird that has very little self confidence due to a low level of flock security, the reflex often results in the bird taking a panicked and uncontrolled flight that ends in a crash against a wall or at best, a hard landing on the floor. This may result in physical injury and/or emotional trauma. These birds often act as though they are anxious to be retrieved and will often step up even for human members of the flock that they would otherwise not be quick to obey. Some birds are actually able to learn to prevent the actual flight and simply freeze, waiting for a sign that the startling stimulus was not a danger. This freeze behavior may actually be innate as a mechanism for the wild bird to avoid capture.
These birds tend to become more anxious over time and often begin to exaggerate their preening activities. If a bird feels cornered, they may either submit sexually, shuddering like a female offering the mounting stance or they may lash out with aggressive posture, biting anything or anyone within reach.
On the other hand, if the bird is a master flier and has a healthy level of self confidence and flock security, it will usually take flight, find a safe landing spot and land with no consequence. They then will decide whether further action is indicated and usually calm down quickly when it becomes apparent that the danger has passed or that it was a false alarm. This is obviously the state we need to strive for in our pet birds and the means to accomplish this state should be as obvious. The only time this state may turn out to be a problem is under the circumstances of a flight response happening outdoors. Even a good flier, who is comfortable flying down and landing safely from the relatively low altitudes found in the average human dwelling, may find it frightening to find itself landing in a tall tree. They have instinctively flown upward in response to the flight reflex, but have no experience with the sudden extreme altitude. They may be afraid to fly down from the height, even though they may be fully capable to do so. In the authors experience, usually these birds may be safely retrieved simply by exercising self control and patience. Owners should be counseled not to throw objects at the bird in an attempt to again startle them into flight. Keep in mind that the bird has never seen home from this altitude and may easily get lost if it starts flying around up there. They have no desire to escape. On the contrary, they are anxious to get back home. In some cases, it may be possible to get a ladder or call a tree-trimming service that has a tall bucket ladder.
These birds will usually wait patiently to be rescued. If this is not possible, it is important to simply keep track of their location, following their movements at all times. Try to provide familiar objects, like their cage, in an open area where the bird can see it. Some will make the leap and fly down. In any case, eventually the bird will become tired and hungry and make a mistake, causing it to fall. If they are a good flier, they will then land in a lower spot or come all the way down. The author has had several cases when constant reassurance and guidance was given as the owner kept track of the bird’s location and reported progress from a cell phone. In all cases, there has been a positive outcome. In one case, a greenwing macaw was out for 3 ½ days before finally coming down to a level the owner was able to reach by climbing a shorter tree. The bird rushed to him as soon as it was possible.
Unfortunately, the possibility of this scenario provides the rationalization for the common practice of not allowing fledging and of severe wing clipping. The bottom line is that these scenarios are preventable in one of two ways. Either the bird is maintained without an ability to fly or the owner takes full responsibility of not allowing the bird to get into the position that a flight response could result in the upper altitude crisis. The former case has been the common practice for years and, in this author’s strong opinion, has resulted in a very high incidence of behavioral and physical consequences. In the latter case, the owner must be convinced that a fully flighted bird is much healthier and less likely to develop behavior problems, and that taking a fully flighted bird outdoors without some kind of protection is foolish and detrimental to the safety of the bird. In response to the argument that these birds enjoy going outdoors without restraint, this author asserts that the bird simply desires to be with the owner, whether it is indoors or outdoors. They are just as happy being in a cage, a clear carrier or on a harness or jess and leash as they are without restraint. In fact, the outdoors can be a little frightening and dangerous and they even seem to feel safer with the protection of restraint than without it. It is our responsibility to work towards prevention of these common and miserable behavior problems and a non-fledged and/or over- clipped bird is at extremely high risk of developing them. This practice could be likened to the parent of a human child having the child’s feet surgically removed to prevent the child from getting into danger. The obviously superior approach is to teach the child (or pet bird) how to walk and run (fly) in order that the child (bird) may avoid danger themselves. This involves more work and commitment than many bird owners are prepared for, but in the long run, these people also deserve better than to be unexpectedly heartbroken when their pet develops severe, otherwise preventable behavioral problems that result in financial burden and misery for all concerned.
Safety in numbers – flock or family dependency
Besides flight, the other critical factor in providing safety and security for a bird involves the security found in the natural flock. In order to understand the human/bird flock from the bird’s perspective, it is necessary to examine the social structure of the natural flock. In the natural setting, prey birds tend to live in flocks. This provides a level of protection from danger and also provides a system wherein the individual has an opportunity to learn from the experience of other older individuals. The flock also provides a social order where various jobs are taken by the members that are the most qualified by their experience. If a pair has a nest with babies, for example, it is more efficient and safer for other flock members to drive intruders away so the pair can stay with the nest and protect it. The flock provides a multilevel system of defense. The flock may be as small as a family group with a pair and a few offspring, as with very independent birds like bluejays. In some species, the flock may have hundreds, even thousands of members. The size of the flock depends on the available territory and the type and relative availability of resources on which the species depends. Larger flocks may be subdivided into many smaller “mini flocks”, or family units
. This may be analogous to a human population divided into households within neighborhoods within towns, etc. The social structure of the flock: the role of the individuals in each age-class Within the flock, there is a social order. This is often referred to as the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order.
There is no one “alpha” leader in a flock. The hierarchy is very dynamic and the status of an individual seems to depend partially on the circumstances of the moment. One individual may win a dispute over a resource today, only to lose to the same individual the next day. Each family unit may have a hierarchy independent of the overall flock hierarchy. This hierarchy is loosely organized into age classes. As individuals mature socially, they gain status assume more responsibility in their role as flock member. In determining the relative social development of the pet bird in the human/bird flock, understanding this natural system is useful.
Psittacines are hatched naked with closed eyes and complete dependence on the parent birds for survival.
They are altricial,as opposed to the chicken, which is precocious, being hatched with eyes open and able to eat on its own in the first 24 hours of life. In this phase of development, they receive experience in continual comfort and support from their parents. As they open their eyes, they undergo the process of learning who their caregiver is. This also teaches them who they are. This process is imprinting. There is a “critical period” during which this process takes place and it extends into the neophyte stage.
The neophyte At this stage, they begin to gain a sense of curiosity about their surroundings during this phase as their parents feed them through regurgitant feeding. As they open their eyes, they begin to develop visual skills.
Sometime before beginning the fledging phase of their development, they begin to poke their heads out of the nest to experience the sights and sounds of the world around them. The fledgling When a baby is being raised by its parents, it reaches an age when, before weaning, it begins to venture out of the nest to start the process of fledging. Often the parents encourage the baby to leave the nest. The early phase of this stage of development has been referred to by Phoebe Linden as the “lost-in-the-woods stage” when they begin to vocalize to call out their position to the parent birds.
It has been shown that flying is an instinctive reflex. If a baby that has developed sufficient feathering is thrown in the air, it will flap its wings and try to fly. Often, it will fly upward first. The skills required to turn, safely fly down and land require practice to master. Ultimately, the pinnacle of skill for the master flier is the ability to change its flight plan in midair. At first, and for short flights, birds decide where to land before they take off. If a bird is startled into flight by the fight or flight reflex, it must find a landing place while in the air. For longer flights, this is also the case. The fledgling class spends all their time simply practicing the skills required to achieve mastery in flight. The time spent in this class varies with the species, size of the flock, and the available territory. The more safe territory that is available, the more time a young bird can spend practicing. They are, at this age, also busy learning a number of other skills as well, such as preening their feathers and foraging for food.
They need to manage their time effectively during the day so they will develop sufficient skill in all areas that require learning and practice. The amount of territory also partially governs the overall time it takes to become reproductively active. This concept will be discussed more fully below.
As members of this class achieve a level of competency in flight, they begin to perform useful functions for the flock. The first one is that of sentinel. They learn to watch the world and report to the other members of the flock on their observations. This is commonly seen in pet birds that seem to develop an uncanny ability to tell the difference between the sounds of the arrival in the driveway of the owner versus any other visitor. They develop communication skills that allow them to effectively alert the flock of their observations in a way that goes beyond just reporting a sighting. They learn to use their communication to also express variable levels of concern about the sighting, appropriate to the situation. This way other members of the flock can respond in an appropriate way. In some cases, the appropriate response is to fly away or to take shelter. Other times, a non-predatory intruder needs to be chased from the territory. Sometimes, the appropriate response is to simply sit still and wait to see what will happen.
As the bird becomes stronger in flight, more independent of parental support and more self confident, it may begin to participate in the job of driving intruders out of the flock territory. This actually begins at a younger age amongst individuals within the class as they claim bits of territory and space within the flock and compete with each other for optimum spots within the safety of the flock territory. When other species and ultimately even preditors approach the territory, they will attempt to drive them away. This is known as territory aggression and when several members focus on an intruder, it is known as mobbing behavior. This is a behavior most bird lovers have witnessed while observing birds, especially at backyard bird feeders. Several tiny finches are seen to attack and drive huge crows and other birds away from the feeder. When protecting nesting territory, these birds show no fear. They will attack humans and any other intruder. This behavior is often the instinctual basis for the aggression that owners complain about in their pets. The pet bird often begins to assert itself by attempting to drive other humans out of the space they consider to be owned by them and their peer human. More discussion will follow below on the different forms of aggression in the pet bird. This class also continues to function as sentinels.
The advanced explorer
As time goes on and the birds in the class have achieved a higher degree of independence, self confidence, and strength, the next job they begin to assume is that of explorer. It is necessary for some members to venture outside the safety of the flock territory and look for new resources, such as food and additional territory. A few pet birds that have been allowed to develop the social maturity and self confidence necessary to assume this role will begin to show this tendency. They will begin to venture into areas in the house where they don’t usually go. This confident exploration outside their usual area is not to be confused with the seeking behavior seen in the over dependent bird that is trying to find their owner to re-establish contact because they suffer from separation anxiety. The confident explorer will actually move away from the owner to find new areas to explore. Often the resource they seek is nesting territory, which suggests that they may be moving towards the uppermost class in the flock, discussed next.
Social versus physiological reproductive maturity
This author is often asked by clients how old their bird will be when it will reach sexual maturity. Physiologically, most species become capable of reproduction several years before they are observed doing so in the natural state. They must first reach social maturity and achieve adequate seniority in the flock before they become active in reproduction. The physiological ability to become active at an earlier age allows for variable opportunity for individuals in a flock to become active under more favorable than expected circumstances. A very small flock with little competition for nesting territory, plentiful safe flock territory and food resources, little interference from other competing species and scarce predation are possible factors that could allow reproductive activity at a younger age than is commonly observed. These conditions may arise in nature when a very large flock diversifies and a small portion of the flock leaves the main flock to establish a new flock in new territory. This is exactly the situation that a pet bird is in when growing up in a tiny human/bird flock in captivity. The fact that they are imprinted allows them to accept humans as flock members. They attempt to proceed towards reproductive activity very quickly, often developing a mate bond with a human in the process. They often fail to follow the normal steps in developing the social maturity and skip ahead prematurely to the reproductively active class. This provides the basis for the emergence of all the females laying eggs and members of both sexes developing a wide range of behavior problems that ultimately escalate to the point where they are presented as patients.
The reproductively active
When the birds have gained adequate self confidence, strength, and social status in the flock, they are ready to respond to the environmental cues that nature uses to stimulate their reproductive hormones. One of the most powerful of these cues is the lengthening of the exposure to daylight in the spring of the year. The pineal gland responds to this increase in light exposure via stimulation of pituitary gonadotropins and by stimulating the content of hypothalamic FSH- and LH-releasing factors either directly or indirectly via the hypothalamus.
These releasing factors stimulate the ovary and testicle to produce increased amounts of estrogen and testosterone. These hormones, in turn, drive an increased focus and determination in behaviors like nest territory acquisition and nest building. In less temperate climates, closer to the equator where there is less difference in the amount of day length over the year, the cues are related to the onset of the wet, rainy season after a dry period. In either case, this signals a time when dietary resources are becoming more abundant. This is the most favorable time to raise babies. Another stimulating factor is the potential mate bonds they have been developing with others in their age class as they have grown and moved up the social structure. By this time, many have paired off and they have been practicing mating rituals with their bonded partners. In fact, a requirement for graduation to this class is this pair bonding.
The pairs will seek and acquire nesting territory within the most optimal areas of the overall flock territory in which to build a nest and ultimately raise babies. In the psittacine group, most species expend a great deal of time and energy carving a hole in a tree (most species) or a riverbank (like Patagonian conures) to form a nest. In the case of most species, the male does most of this nest building while the female guards the nest territory. When the nest is ready, they switch roles and the female stays in the nest while the male assumes the guardian and food-acquisition role. It is likely that the act of observing the male build the nest acts as a stimulator for the female hormone increase, making her receptive to his copulatory advances only when the nest is ready.
The author has seen evidence for this concept in the form of the mate aggression sometimes seen in captive breeding of cockatoos and occasionally in other species. The finished nesting box is offered to the pair. Little if any nest-building time or skill is needed. The male has no job and the female is not yet receptive to him. He sees that the nest is ready and begins to drive the unreceptive female to a reproductive stance. When she runs away from him, his level of aggression increases, sometimes to the point where he ends up physically injuring the female. Interestingly, the exact location of the injuries commonly seen in the female correlate perfectly with the contact points the male would have with the female in the course of natural mating activities. The feathers and sometimes the skin over the back of the female’s head, neck and shoulders are where the male would naturally be holding the female. This is a common site of injury to the female. This is also often seen in the case of two pet lovebirds or other small species that are housed in a cage with no nest box or nest-building materials provided. The beak of the female is often bitten and injured. Sometimes, the entire rhinotheca is removed. During natural mating rituals, the male and female lock beaks in a mutual “tug-of-war” activity. This happens naturally when the male regurgitates to feed his mate while she is in the nest. The female also displays this behavior as she feeds babies in the nest. When the female is unreceptive and the male becomes more and more forceful in an effort to get her to comply, the male ends up injuring the female in these two anatomic locations. As a former breeder, this author learned that in order to avoid the development of this aggression, the nest box should not be presented in a finished state. A nest box that only has a tiny hole that needs to be enlarged and a cavity that is pre-filled with many pieces of wood that must be chewed up and removed gives the male a job to do before he is ready to approach the female to continue the mating process. Males in pairs set up this way – even pairs with a previous history of mate aggression events – were never observed to display this exaggerated behavior that leads to physical injury.
In the case of the pet bird that is imprinted and bonded to a human as a baby, the initial parental bond sometimes begins to transition to a mate bond. This would never happen in the natural setting. This is aberrant behavior that would not be optimal in most cases. First of all, the parent already has a mate bond with the other parent and in most bird flocks (where monogamy is practiced) the rule about adultery is similar to our own in this respect. We (and they) don’t choose an offspring as a mate unless there simply is no other choice and the other parent is not present. Secondly, this would not be optimal from a genetic standpoint as it can lead to a greater probability of genetic imperfections which would ultimately reduce the probability of reproductive success and thereby species survival. Natural selection, by trial and error, controls this very tightly over time in the natural setting. Birds nearly always have enough choice to be able to mate-bond with a similar age flock member that is unrelated. In the tiny human/bird flocks that are the homes of pet bird owners, there is often little or no choice. Third, it has been observed in many species that individuals will tend to select mates based on displays of strength. This is seen in the form of physical attributes as well as behavioral challenges. Witness the mountain sheep who charge each other, repeatedly butting heads until one finally gives up. The winner gets the choice of female mate. A bird that has already reached this dominance class and has achieved reproductive success would not be likely to select or accept an offspring as a mate that is in a lower class and has not worked their way up the dominance structure and earned the right to select a stronger mate. It would mean less likelihood that the parent would be able, with this younger and weaker individual, to continue with optimum reproductive success.
In the situation where the bird is also very over dependent on parental protection and insecure, these aberrant relationships are especially damaging. The transition to a mate bond is not complete and there is a blend that results in a bond that is partly parental and partly a mate relationship. Owners often have experiences when their bird begins to regurgitate and feed them or begin to display sexual behaviors or masturbate on parts of the owner’s body. This is not to be confused with the bird that masturbates on an inanimate object or feeds an object or mirror. These are displaced behaviors that involve objects that are taking the place of an otherwise unavailable mate.
Owners may be amused, confused, even frightened by these behaviors. Their response to the behavior plays a role in how the relationship progresses and in how damaging it becomes. Sometimes a female bird will suddenly assume a mounting stance, crouching down with her wings out a little and fluttering. Sometimes owners panic, thinking this is a seizure of some kind. Often the behavior is halted by the owner’s dramatic response and the bird is either rushed to an emergency clinic for evaluation or is held and cuddled all night by a very emotional owner. The first response can lead to a very traumatic and frightening experience for the bird. The other response may cause the bird to repeat the behavior to receive the same pleasurable response again. In a bird with low self confidence, coupled with an emotional owner, this may also turn into a frightening experience, as the owner may inadvertently signal to the bird that there is imminent danger. Birds take their cues from their owner’s response to actions and situations when associating an emotion with the event. If the owner is frightened, the bird will become frightened. If the owner is amused, the bird will act amused and playful. If the owner is angry, the bird may become frightened of the circumstance or worse, of the owner. Either way, the experience is usually detrimental to the mental health of the bird.
Often an owner responds with amusement to these behaviors. This usually involves a pleasurable response and not only may serve to fuel the reproductive drive, but also may reinforce the behavior, leading it to become an attention-getting behavior. The response may actually be an inadvertently sexual one, such as holding the bird close to the chest and petting the back. It may be a vocal one that often results in the bird learning to associate a word or phrase with the behavior. In this case, it will sometimes try to recreate the response by mimicking the word or phrase.
Another manifestation of the phenomenon of human/bird mate bonding is the territorial aggression that is sometimes seen in the human/bird flock. This is the case when the owner states that the bird is aggressive to certain human members and not others. In the flock, there are intraflock boundaries that are set into place based on the dominance hierarchy. The most sacred of these sub-territories is that space surrounding the nest and the mated pair. Owners often experience aggression by the bird when the owner becomes too closely involved with another human in the presence of the bird. It is common for couples to report that the bird “minds” one of the couple but is aggressive towards the other. Further investigations usually reveal that this couple acts like a mated pair in front of the bird. They often expect the bird to accept their obvious relationship while the bird is also involved in an intimate, even sexual, relationship with one of them. It is the job of the dominant member of the pair to keep other flock members from interacting too closely with their partner and will often display very aggressive, even dangerous and destructive behavior towards perceived intruders. The author can recount many stories of examples of this where human adults and children are seriously injured by a bird that is simply trying to enforce the flock rules governing intraflock territory boundaries. The bird usually does not “hate” the injured human, as is commonly thought, but rather is just doing its job. In fact, the human usually is a needed part of the bird’s flock who simply does not understand these rules. Most of these birds will accept the authority of these humans when outside of their perceived areas of control.
This author is usually able to easily handle the “meanest of the mean” in the exam room, but would certainly be challenged if in the bird’s territory.
An Overview of the Common Behavior Problems Currently Presented for Evaluation and Treatment
Exaggerated preening, aka “feather-picking”
It is important to remember that “feather picking” is really just an exaggerated form of the natural preening behavior that birds must practice to keep their feathers healthy. This provides maximum flight efficiency and thermal protection. If there is stress causing an elevation of adrenal hormone levels, this activity becomes exaggerated. It seems to be an instinct that, like most instinctive behaviors, is developed to perfection based on learning from parents and siblings, followed by lots of practice. It is a skill that requires delicate precision. This author has seen young birds that actually self-clip flight feathers after clipped ones are replaced. They simply nip off the new feather in exactly the same location that the feather was previously clipped by a human. They may not (yet) do any further damage to this or other surrounding feathers. This is known as “self clipping” in the chat rooms on the internet. It seems to be most prevalent in young cockatoos that are not yet showing any other signs of exaggerated preening or stress-related behaviors. It is most common in babies that have a history of never fledging and whose owners have lovingly, gently, and with much ritual and reward, clipped their bird’s feathers on a regular basis at home. The bird has actually learned that this is part of appropriate preening behavior. This form of abnormal preening is uncommon in birds that have had stressful feather-clipping experiences at the pet store or veterinarian’s office. This behavior is not actually classified by this author as an over-preening behavior, but these self-clipping birds seem to be at a high risk for the development of more severe forms of over-preening. In this author’s experience, these birds are often presented at a later age after having developed more serious over-preening problems.
In the author’s experience, “feather picking” may present in several apparent patterns. Some birds pull out body contours and coverts over the body, legs, and wings. They often present with bald spots (often extending beyond the natural apteria). They usually will allow these feathers to begin to re-grow to a certain stage, and then before the feather has lost the blood supply, they pluck it out. This seems to be a common pattern in the bird identified as having separation anxiety and often uses this body feather plucking as an attention-getting device. They often vocalize when they pull the feather, which raises the concern and attention of the owner, who often makes a dramatic response. Another commonly seen pattern is that of wing and tail feather chewing. These birds usually chew and fray the primary and secondary wing feathers and the tail feathers. This often starts with clipped feathers and extends to other nearby full length ones. This author has seen many wild birds that have a single damaged flight or tail feather and they have chewed and frayed only the damaged feather. The rest of the feathers are in perfect order and condition. This leads to a conclusion that it may be instinctive for birds to try to remove damaged flight and tail feathers in order to maximize their flight capability.
Some patients present with another pattern that involves rubbing, rather than picking or over-preening. These birds rub some part of their body on various objects causing damage to the feathers. In some cases this behavior may be a stereotypical, patterned behavior that is repeated over and over for no apparent reason. In other cases, it is related to sexual activity and masturbation. The cause of these behaviors is sometimes obvious, as in the case of masturbation, but in other cases it is sometimes more difficult to ascertain. Stereotypic behavior is usually thought to stem from stress and a lack of opportunity to perform normal activities, such as foraging and interacting socially with other flock members. It is most commonly seen in birds that are alone a lot or are not accepted by other members of the human/bird flock. They are usually either physically or socially isolated. Food hoarding is sometimes seen by the author in cockatoos and occasionally in other species. It may be a behavior learned from a human flock member or an instinctive behavior that was selected for during times of high flock density and limited resources. This behavior involves holding food or other objects under the wing. The resulting friction the object applies to the feathers sometimes leads to damage to the feathers in the area. If the food or object is wet, an infected moist dermatitis may result . Sick birds are often presented who do not over preen or pluck, but they look disheveled and are simply not bothering to preen their feathers. They may have a poor level of nutrition, leading to poor feather quality. These birds need to be differentiated from birds that have poor feather quality due to over preening or rubbing. They may simply be too weak to preen or they may have structural abnormalities like arthritis or sore feet that prevent them from balancing well enough to preen properly.
Crossing the line
Sadly, some birds cross the line between feather destruction and the destruction of follicles, skin, and occasionally deeper tissues. There are several possible causes implicated in the development of mutilation beyond feather destruction. In the author’s experience, they are usually birds that have had a history of feather picking and the escalation from over preening to mutilation may have taken as long as several years or as little as a few days. They all have one thing in common. The stress factor (s) involved in the over preening is (are) increasing.
An exception to the author’s assertion that mutilation is usually preceded by and is an extension of stress- related exaggeration of preening behavior is the mutilation commonly seen in lovebirds with polyfolliculitis. This condition is discussed elsewhere in the literature and is a disorder of feather follicles causing multiple feathers to emerge from a single follicle. There are also occasional cases of inflammatory dermatitis that may also cause mutilation, although the author refers to birds displaying this behavior as “self debriders”, responding with mutilation to the inflamed and necrotic tissue. Another common factor is the seemingly inevitable onset of secondary infection and inflammation in the mutilated tissue. This seems to fuel the cycle of mutilation, leading the author to coin the phrase, “kid with a scab syndrome” in describing this to owners. At this stage, medical treatment must be employed in the form of antibiotics (chosen based on the results of culture and sensitivity testing) and pain control (in the form of anti-inflammatories and/or narcotic analgesics) in order to hope to break the cycle of mutilation. Sometimes, surgery is indicated to remove beds of thick granulation tissue that has formed and is preventing normal healing of the wound. This surgical approach sometimes includes the use of sliding skin grafts (discussed elsewhere in the literature) to provide a healthy basis for healing. Some cases require the use of a collar to prevent the bird from preventing normal healing through further mutilation of the wound.
Mutilation as an attention-getting device
A high percentage of these birds have learned to use the over preening to gain attention from their owners and the more dramatic the owner response is, the more intense the mutilation can become. This author has seen several birds that have literally killed themselves in an effort to recreate the dramatic and emotional response that they have experienced when they have used over preening or mutilating as an attention- getting device. There is a definite species predilection for severe mutilation with cockatoos by far the most likely to cross the line, followed by African grey birds. Moluccan cockatoos and umbrella cockatoos, in particular, have shown the highest rate of mutilation presentation. It may be that the owners of these birds are often very needy humans and tend to smother their birds with hugs and physical affection regularly, keeping them both over dependent and at the same time often sexually stimulated. Cockatoos seem to be more likely to show signs of separation anxiety than most other groups. The author has seen several cases where a Moluccan or umbrella cockatoo has suffered a small, non-life threatening injury on a foot or toe that resulted in a small amount of hemorrhage. The owner has been very dramatic and emotional when dealing with this incident. They often tell that they hugged the bird for hours, even brought it to bed with them due to an extreme fear that the bird would start bleeding again and die. These birds often present one to three days after this event with an acute history of chewing a toe or toes completely off the opposite foot that the original injury was located - apparently in an effort to recreate the dramatic owner response. Sometimes they are presented for post-mortem examination. The worst case the author has seen involved a Moluccan that chewed the opposite foot completely off and had a wing 90% amputated before collapsing in shock from blood loss.
In the natural setting, all members in a flock of birds are within vocal range of each other at all times. In the morning, there is a time of flock chatter that represents a “roll call”. All members are accounted for before the days activities can begin. During the day, the different age classes are busy doing their various jobs and it is possible for members to communicate their position to the other members at all times. In the evening, there is a re-congregation of members for roosting and typically another round of chatter takes place, again to account for the presence and safety of all members. In the human/bird flock, communication is still a necessary activity. If the bird is confident and the flock is stable, this vocalization is usually limited to a short round in the morning and again in the evening. In the case of the bird that lacks self confidence and a feeling of security, vocalization becomes more frantic as a means of calling for the safety of the human flock members. There are many cases where the bird cannot tolerate the absence of the owner from the room more than a very short time before they begin to call out for the owner, especially if they can hear the owner, but can’t see them. This behavior is often quickly reinforced by the owner, who responds to the screaming in one of several common ways.
Some owners quickly go to the bird and comfort it, petting it and talking reassuringly. At this time, the bird feels safe and becomes quiet. They may stay quiet for some period of time after the owner discontinues the attention, but at some point, the vocalization resumes. The less confident (and more dependent) the bird is, the less time they are able to tolerate the owner not paying attention to them. Some owners, out of frustration, sometimes begin to yell back at the bird, telling them to shut up or be quiet. This is fine with the bird and will reinforce the behavior just as strongly as the comforting will.
The degree of emotional distress displayed by the owner when trying to make the bird be quiet is often directly proportional to the volume and intensity of the birds screaming. At some point, the bird may actually become fearful due to the anger that the owner displays. They continue to scream – perhaps to call for help from other flock members, perhaps to try harder to regain the owner response of comforting that was the response before the owner became frustrated with the screaming. The author is aware of several cases of mental breakdown and even suicide of owners whose beloved bird became so controlling with the escalating levels of screaming that the owner could no longer take it. Often this change from comforting to anger on the part of the owner acts as a trigger that causes the bird to begin to over preen their feathers or escalate the degree of over preening that was already taking place. Many birds have trained their owners so well that they will scream, then say, “shut up”, or “be quiet”, or “bad bird”. They have learned that mimicking the owner’s response often will break the cycle of anger in the owner, causing the owner to begin to laugh and again respond by paying more favorable attention to the bird. Some of these birds will even add the laugh to their routine – scream, say “shut up”, and then laugh.
Owners of these birds usually will admit that at this time, they become amused with the bird, forgive the screaming event, and go to the bird and give it more pleasurable attention. Sadly, the common recommendation in the literature for these birds is isolation – either by covering the cage or by isolating the bird in a distant part of the house. This author has known of many birds that literally end up living in a dark closet, the basement, or have been given away to a shelter, sanctuary, or “breeding program” due to the owner’s lack of tolerance of the screaming.
This type of aggression is discussed above in the section on the reproductively active social class. It is based on reproductive hormonal drive and the urge to reinforce the intraflock boundary rules.
The territories are dynamic and may change suddenly or over time.
Aggression is one of two possible responses to the disregard by humans and other flock members of the respect of the rules governing the boundaries perceived by the bird. The other is that of fear, which will be discussed below. There are several kinds of territory within the flock and the level of aggression is often different in the different types. The most sacred, already discussed, is that of nest and bonded pair space. The intensity of the aggression seen in this territory and under these circumstances is usually the greatest of all.
The kind of territory that most members spend the most time in is the more common grounds of foraging territory. If resources are abundant, then there is usually little conflict. As any bird lover can testify, when there are limited spaces available at the feeder, there is a very dynamic order of taking turns that occurs amongst those wishing to get food. The strategies they use in interacting with each other are elegant and may in part be successfully employed by the pet bird owner wishing to reinforce rules governing where in the house a bird is allowed and where it is not. When the flock first arrives at the feeder, the strongest, most dominant members quickly take all available places. Other members will try to fly in and challenge one that is busy eating and will get knocked off the perch by the stronger member with a wing-flip. The loser is not injured and often retreats to the ground, where it can scavenge bits of food dropped by those on the feeder. This is a more vulnerable position, but the flock is all nearby so it is not a particularly dangerous place to be. These weaker, younger members then keep trying until the more senior members are full, and then they take their turn. Interestingly, the older birds often take up posts around the area and sit patiently preening and acting as sentinels as the younger members take their turn and before the flock moves on to the next location. This shows that the flock does have an investment in the younger members - they are simply given a lower priority. Some form of this dynamic is evident in most human/bird flocks, as well. If the author’s pet severe macaw flies to a location he knows is off limits and refuses to obey the “off” command, he will get gently pushed off the location, forcing him to fly to a location that he is allowed to occupy. When he shows acceptance of this situation, he is rewarded for this acceptance with attention. It obviously would not be fair or appropriate to “discipline” naturally in this way unless the bird is a master flier.
Another type of territory is the roosting area. In a natural setting, there is a fine line between a flock allowing the more dominant members versus the younger class members to occupy the safest roosting places. Cruel as it may seem, the flock generally gives priority to the senior members allowing them to occupy the highest, innermost spaces. After all, they can provide more work for the flock and are more likely to reproduce more quickly so they are less expendable.
Fear based aggression
In the human/bird flock, these territory concepts are very important in analyzing and understanding the level of fear and anxiety an individual may experience. Fear may come from a wide variety of sources, including past experiences the owner may be unaware of and/or have no control over. The development of fear based aggression is a simple concept. The bird uses aggression to avoid what it is afraid of.
Treatment is straightforward once the source(s) of fear is analyzed and identified. It consists of eliminating the fearful stimulus and/or teaching the bird a different way to deal with it, depending on the nature of the source. The most important part of treatment is to help the owner understand the basis of the fear, then to help the bird become enough more self confident so it doesn’t display an exaggerated level of fear response to the fearful stimulus.
Exaggerated fears and phobias
Neophobia as a natural and critically important component of a prey animal’s instinctive behavior Defined simply as fear of new or novel things, some degree of neophobia is necessary for survival.
Without it, animals would not have a mechanism to learn how to avoid danger after being exposed to it. They would simply make the same mistakes over and over until the entire population became extinct. An example is the reluctance to eat new food items before observing another successfully eating it. The stronger and more senior the one eating the item is, the more likely another flock member will be to eat it. The examples proving this concept in pet birds are endless and any avian veterinarian has heard about the owner who allows their bird to eat from their mouth or off their plate. Indeed, an early impetus to develop avian medicine into a science came when Dr. Ted Lafeber Sr. realized that many of his bird patients were suffering from inadequate diets. These birds were either raised by and amongst birds eating seed mixtures or were wild caught birds that were forced to eat a seed mixture in quarantine or starve. In both cases, there were always birds present that were eating this food and the youngsters in the breeding facilities and the newcomers in quarantine had them to learn from. The wild caught birds also probably recognized the form, as they eat seeds in the wild. The ones they eat in the wild were not dry mixtures, but were close enough when hunger set in. In quarantine, canned fruits were also often mixed with the seeds to more closely approximate what the birds were used to eating in the wild. Interestingly, most wild caught birds were never exposed to sunflower seeds or pineapple in their natural setting, but these two items seemed to be the most likely foods the wild caught birds would accept. Perhaps the fat in the sunflower and the sugar in the pineapple, combined with the experience of observation of other birds already eating these items accounts for the preferential acceptance. Dr. Lafeber initiated a brilliant program wherein he exposed non-pellet-eating budgies to those who did. He observed these birds begin to accept the pellets after seeing the others eating them. If parent birds are allowed to raise their babies and they are on a particular diet, like pellets (or anything else) the babies would automatically wean onto the same diet.
Owners often are faced with trying to figure out what their pet has become fearful of. When there is over dependence or stress from any source, neophobia can become exaggerated, just like other instincts can. The neophobic instinct is, of course, directly related to the physiological fight or flight reflex. Any stimulus that is above a certain threshold may elicit this response, but the response may be quite variable depending on the nature of the stimulus, the degree of self confidence the bird possesses, and learned experiences related to the stimulus. The same stimulus, repeated over time may elicit a diminished response over time as the bird learns that the stimulus is not dangerous. Conversely, the same stimulus may also elicit a more and more exaggerated response over time as the bird loses confidence in general or it learns that the stimulus is more and more dangerous. The threshold for reaction is increased or decreased over time and the reasons for this may not be readily apparent.
An extreme but true life example is the over dependent bird that never fledged and has had severely clipped wings all its life. It may or may not be contributing to the severity of the flight feather damage through mutilation. It has what appears to be a close, loving relationship with its owner who has the bird on a consistent schedule of interaction and there may or may not be any ongoing body feather damage. Part of the regular routine is that when the bird comes out to be with the owner, it is so anxious to get to the owner and up to their shoulder that it often lurches excitedly out of the cage and ends up falling to the floor. The owner then reaches down and the bird happily steps up and displays absolutely no obvious emotional or physical damage from the fall. It usually is a bit frantic in its efforts to achieve a position on the owner’s shoulder or up against the chest, then calms down and acts happy as a clam. This goes on daily without change for some amount of time. In the author’s experience, birds that have the following experience are usually between two and four years of age. One day, the owner goes up to the cage as they do every day – nothing apparently different at all in the beginning of the ritual. Suddenly, usually before the owner reaches the cage, the bird goes into full panic mode, screaming at the top of its lungs and begins thrashing around the cage as if the owner was a huge, scary animal. The bird acts as though it is fully convinced that it will be killed and eaten at any second. This usually causes panic and heartbreak in the owner, who, understandably, has difficulty in controlling their emotional and physical response. They may feel an urgent need to scoop the bird up and comfort it and when they open the door, the bird often lurches out of the cage and falls to the floor, running away screaming and leaving a trail of blood from broken feathers behind it. This of course, further breaks the heart of the owner, who will usually go running after the bird, calling its name, screeching some words intended to reassure, but using a volume and frequency in the voice that further panics the escaping bird. Finally, the bird is cornered and captured by the emotionally distraught owner who often receives one or more nasty bites in the process of trying to pick the bird up off the floor. Sometimes the capture and restraint also causes further damage to the bird as well. Now they are both bleeding and screaming as they frantically call your office to find out what to do. Hopefully, a calm voice on the phone tells them to take a few deep breaths, speak slowly and calmly with a lowered volume and frequency to the bird and just wait for the panic to subside as they calmly, gently, and slowly look for any ongoing bleeding. They should be told to simply apply pressure to any source of hemorrhage until the bird and owner both have calmed down enough to allow a more detailed inspection and evaluation. They should then be told to take the bird back to the cage and put it back in after any bleeding has resolved, or go immediately to the clinic to deal with hemorrhage that has not stopped. Phew. This is an account of a sad, frightening, but true and not uncommon scenario. It is difficult enough when you have a panicked bird to deal with but worse when the owner is so panicked that they are also fueling the bird’s level of panic. Then, of course, the owner wants to know why this happened and what they can do to prevent it (or how you intend to cure it) and whether they have completely lost the relationship they had with their bird.
It turns out there are two possible underlying, sub-clinical causes and one possible acute cause for panic attacks like this. The first, more insidious and underlying cause is the degree of underlying dependency and degree of the bird’s lack of self confidence. The next issue is that of a slowly increasing level of a simple fear of falling. Even though the bird has never acted like the falls were troublesome at the time, each experience can cause a slightly more active adrenal response with a slightly higher level of epinephrine release. They endure any physical pain without complaint. The bird is so anxious to get to the safety of the owner’s presence and safe height of the shoulder that the relief of this return to safety and end to the separation overpowers the fear response. At some point, however, the physiological response indeed does overpower the relief response and a completely unexpected, full blown panic attack ensues. Methods to increase the independence and the self confidence should be employed and will be discussed below. The other factor that is sometimes involved in panic attacks has to do with subtle, un-noticed or overlooked changes in something about the owner or the environment.
Attention Deficit Disorder, autism, and the prey bird
This is understood best when considering that all animals, but especially prey birds, must have a degree of what humans would call Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). For the animal, this is actually not a disorder at all, but a requirement. Animals that are prey must not filter and ignore stimuli unless they have learned for sure that they do not represent danger. A woman named Temple Grandin asserts this concept in her book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.
It makes perfect sense and is supported by many examples in the author’s experience. Temple also asserts that animals are “hyperspecific” about stimuli. This means that an animal may be unafraid of a particular stimulus, but terrified of the same stimulus that has only a tiny, even imperceptible difference. She gives an example of a horse she knows that panics at the approach of a male human with a black cowboy hat on his head. The same man, same hat in his hand elicits no response. A woman with the black cowboy hat on her head gets no response, etc. The response is specific to the exact set of circumstances of gender of human, type and color of hat and position of hat on human. This author once had a wild caught Amazon that would attack viciously if he approached the bird wearing any kind of cologne or body fragrance. Without the fragrance, the bird acted in an expected way with no aggressive tendencies. These are two of many examples that come to mind. They may represent specific factors or combinations of factors that elicit memories of frightening experiences. In the case of one owner whose bird had a similar panic attack as described above, the eliciting stimulus was the color combination of pants and shirt the owner was wearing. He had worn that shirt in front of the bird before and those pants in front of it, but never had presented to the bird with that specific combination. To prove it, he was able to show that if he did not wear that combination, the attack was not repeated. If he began to slowly enter the room wearing that particular combination, he saw that the bird became agitated as he entered the room and then became more fearful as he approached. Since he was then aware that this was the problem he left the room to change before the bird experienced another all-out attack.
Temple also reveals in her book that she herself is autistic. She asserts that animals show evidence that they have similar tendencies naturally. She says that if an autistic person begins to feel the building feeling of panic, a powerful tool to treat this is restraint. She has actually built a squeeze-chute she gets into if she feels an attack coming on. She reports that this restraint calms her and helps ease the feeling of panic. This is a technique that this author and most avian veterinarians actually use routinely in the exam room. It is usually necessary to restrain a patient with or without a towel in order to examine and treat it. If a firm yet gentle and calm approach is used it is often very reassuring to the owner to see their otherwise nervous bird calm down and accept the restraint with less struggling.
This only fails to calm in the case of the wild or very dominant birds that are not only panicked, but also very angry. This is the basis of the apparent success the man calling himself the “bird whisperer” is seen to achieve. This technique may sometimes be useful in the home setting in the case of a panic attack or a severe “temper tantrum”. It is, however, potentially dangerous if the owner is not very well trained, experienced, and skillful in its execution. It is not often recommended for home treatment, but all owners should be trained to safely restrain their bird in the event of an emergency so they can safely deal with situations involving hemorrhage and/or entrapment of appendages. This represents the physical assertion of a level of control and authority that most social beings need to some extent in order to feel a protected part of the group they belong to. This is seen in social structure in a strong family environment in humans and in a strong flock environment in flocking birds. The most successful bird owner has incorporated a balance of structure, control and authority with a healthy level of freedom, social growth, and independence.
Analyzing the Individual Patient’s Problems and the Causes Involved The “stress meter” analogy
If the subject of feather picking is researched on the internet and/or in the literature, the common theme is the search for a single cause. This usually leads the average owner to request specific tests to rule out or to diagnose a disease condition or single event that is solely responsible for the development of the abnormal behavior. This is very frustrating, as each source of information seems to focus on a different cause. In this author’s experience, while there may be a single “trigger” event or condition that seems to correlate to the onset of the behavior, further analysis usually reveals that there is a set of several underlying issues that, cumulatively, has build the level of stress to a point where the behavior abruptly changes. This trigger event or condition often takes the form of some kind of change in the consistency of the bird’s social and/or physical life. This tends to allow owners to blame an obvious cause (that they believe they can repair, avoid, or change) and deny less obvious causes (that they may not be able to repair or to commit to avoiding or changing) that are related to the owner’s management or the bird’s previous experiences. It is useful to counsel owners to imagine that the patient has a virtual “stress meter” that has a red zone and a needle that is increased by any of a number of stress factors. Many birds (and people, for that matter) have their stress needle just below the red zone. Various on-going or intermittent stressors cause the adrenal glands to increase the release of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
The red zone represents a level of stress that is sufficient to cause normal behaviors, like preening, vocalizing, developing dominance, reproductive activity, and neophobia to become exaggerated. These natural behaviors and instincts, exaggerated by stress then become the obvious behavior problems known as feather picking, mutilation, screaming, aggression, excessive egg laying and masturbation, and excessive fear and phobias. These problems probably often have more than one cause in an individual.
Having this perspective of a probably multi-factorial cause allows for the possibility to identify and reduce some aspect of the forces on the stress needle and bring it away from the threshold of the red zone where behaviors become exaggerated.
For example, a bird that has very little self-confidence and also is developing a fear of falling due to over- clipped wings may suffer separation anxiety much more quickly than a bird that possesses a healthy degree of self confidence due to daily flight. The owner of the bird may not be able to realistically change the amount of separation the bird must experience due to their work, but he can commit to allowing the birds wings to regrow and help the bird learn to fly. This takes time, but result may be a more confident, independent bird that is much less likely to suffer as much stress from the separation.
There are often a number of identifiable forces that may be pushing on the bird’s stress needle, including over dependency, failure to fledge and have daily flight, fear of falling, separation anxiety, changes in human/bird flock (social and/or physical or environmental changes), reproductive hormonal pressure, and occasionally medical problems. Often, owners are searching desperately for a “silver bullet” – a pill or injection that will “cure” their bird of the behavior problem. Many years of experience and hundreds of cases later, this author is absolutely convinced that there are no such magical cures. Sometimes a bird’s behavior problem will seem to improve in response to a treatment aimed at resolving some medical condition, but with in-depth analysis over time, it usually turns out that these problems tend to recur when a new force pushes the needle back into the red zone. In some cases, a medical problem like zinc toxicity is diagnosed and treated and the behaviors seem to normalize. This author asserts that in many of these cases, the bird’s needle is being lowered by the required consistent ritual of the treatment the owner is providing for the medical problem. This regular, consistent, and on-time ritual often provides an increased level of flock security to the bird and makes it feel less of the separation anxiety that actually led to the exaggerated behavior in the first place.
Classification of Behavior Problems
Patients may be classified in two ways: based on the actual clinical presentations and based on psychopathoetiology, or the main component(s) of the underlying cause. This is useful in the detailed documentation of a patient’s initial presentation as well as that of progress over time. It also offers the opportunity to help an owner appreciate the multifactoral nature of their pet’s problems.
Classification based on the clinical presentation
Classification based on the clinical syndrome includes the following categories: (a1) mild to severe acute body contour and/or down feather plucking, (a2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent body contour and/or down feather plucking, (b1) mild to severe acute wing and/or tail feather destruction, (b2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent wing and/or tail feather destruction, (c1) mild to severe acute soft tissue mutilation, (c2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent soft tissue mutilation, (d1) mild to severe acute separation screaming, (d2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent separation screaming, (e1) mild to severe acute territorial aggression, (e2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent territory aggression, (f1) mild to severe acute avoidance or control-based aggression, (f2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent avoidance or control-based aggression, (g1) mild to severe acute hyperneophobia, (g2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent hyperneophobia, (h1) mild to severe acute fear of falling syndrome, (h2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent fear of falling syndrome, (i1) mild to severe acute inappropriate reproductive activities like masturbation and egg laying, (i2) mild to severe chronic or intermittent inappropriate reproductive behavior. Some of these diagnosis overlap in many cases and a single patient may sometimes be classified into one each (acute or chronic/intermittent) of all of the above categories.
Classification based on underlying causes
Categories used by the author in the classification based on underlying psychopathoetiology include: (A) some degree of imprinting, (B) separation anxiety, (C) failure to fledge and fly masterfully, (D) failure to mature socially, (E) lack of structure with rules and authority, consistency of schedule, and emotional harmony in their artificial human/bird flock. In the author’s experience, many patients may be classified into all or some of these categories. The treatment strategies recommended for each may overlap. A thorough evaluation of each patient is required to determine the nature of the clinical syndrome experienced by the patient and the relative influence each of these causative factors may be exerting.
In most cases, a “trigger” event or condition may be identified that marks the onset of clinical manifestation of the various symptoms. It is useful to keep the “stress meter” analogy in mind when designing the treatment plan for the individual patient. While a goal in treatment is certainly to eliminate such a trigger, this may not always be the most important factor in achieving long term success.
Once the set of clinical syndromes, any trigger events or conditions, and causative influences have been identified, treatment strategies must be tailored to the individual patient based on this information. The most important component of treatment is helping the owner understand the reason(s) for the problem because in most cases the long term solutions require their commitment to changes that are usually not easy. Some cases involve situations the owners cannot practically rectify. An example is the owner who has taken their bird to another home (like a parent or friend) for housing and can only visit intermittently. This may represent a situation that may prevent the owner from maintaining the kind of relationship they desire with their pet until such time that they can reunite and keep the patient with them. Owners often “want their cake and eat it too” and may have to accept that the circumstances they have created will make it improbable, if not impossible to achieve long term successful elimination of the unwanted behavior(s). This often means making some very tough decisions. If they do not understand and agree to this commitment, then owner compliance is often low or short-lived. Short term improvement may be possible, but long term and really meaningful improvement is not likely and recurrence of the problem is highly probable.
The first step is to diagnose and resolve any medical issues.
In the author’s opinion and experience, there are few cases where a medical problem has actually caused a behavioral problem by itself. An example of a commonly cited medical problem that has often been implicated as a causative etiology in feather picking is bacterial folliculitis. A recent study by Rosenthal and others sheds doubt on this theory.
Medical problems may be factors that actually added enough stress to the picture to act as triggers, causing the onset of clinical symptoms. An example is the over clipped bird that has become injured as a result of one too many falls. Medical problems may represent factors adding stress to the system but not part of the trigger mechanism. An example of this is a bird with an underlying, otherwise sub-clinical medical condition like Aspergillosis or elevated zinc levels. Medical problems may be a result of the same stresses that caused the onset of symptoms. An example of this is the bird that has mutilated and developed an infected wound. Often there is some overlap between these components and critical analysis of the possible cause and effect relationships involved is important to the long term outcome.
In the experience of the author, in the vast majority of cases a critical component to long term improvement has been to get the bird flying. This usually means flight lessons for the bird that has never fully fledged. Often the owner will claim that the bird does fly and doesn’t see the importance or need of this. The fact of the matter is that flight is not an all or nothing skill. Many birds can “fly” but it is at such a poor level of skill that they do not derive any self confidence from the activity. A well flighted bird should be able to easily develop a flight plan and execute a safe landing after being startled unexpectedly into flight. They should be able to fly down a hallway, make a turn into a room and land safely. They should comply with a command to fly given by their owner and enjoy a daily “fly-bird” ritual.
If the bird doesn’t have flight feathers, then in the author’s opinion they must be allowed to regrow. In many cases, this is just a matter of time. They are often not present because they are always clipped when they grow in. In other cases where the bird is chewing them and not allowing them to regrow, steps must be taken to facilitate their regrowth. There are several approaches to this. Figure-of-eight wing wraps using elastic bandaging works for many patients. These must be changed often enough to allow for wing exercise and the advancement of the newly emerging and lengthening feathers. This is usually done weekly and many owners can be trained to do the rebandaging at home. Collars are often employed for feather destructive behavior.
In the author’s opinion, these add a significant degree of stress and should be used only in the case of soft tissue mutilation or as a temporary method of allowing the wing feathers to be replaced. There can be no permanent improvement in the underlying cause(s) while a collar in place. Nearly all cases of collar use result in recurrence of the original problem when the collar is removed if the underlying causes are not addressed and corrected. Pulling the damaged feathers will cause them to regrow, but this is painful and must be done under anesthesia. One problem with this strategy is that they will then regrow all at one time, putting the bird at a very high risk for damage to the newly emerging wing feathers as they have no adult feathers to serve as “bumpers” to protect them during the time they are in pin. Then when feathers are replaced by the natural molting process, all of the feathers tend to be timed to regrow at the same time, again putting the bird in the position of having a very vulnerable wing. Another problem with feather pulling is that there is a risk of causing permanent damage to the follicle. This may result in the formation of follicular cysts or maldirected feather growth. For these reasons, the author does not recommend this strategy. “Imping” is a useful procedure that may be employed if there is an available set of replacement feathers and the bird has long enough stubs to allow successful splicing. Each feather is unique and the replacement set must include an exact match for each position.
Another strategy that may be employed with or without the wing wraps involves one kind of sedation or other. The rational is to provide just enough of a calming influence that the bird will allow wing feathers to regrow. This is usually only necessary in extreme cases and should be thought of as a strictly temporary measure that will be discontinued once the wings have regrown sufficiently to begin flight training, practice sessions and ultimately daily “fly-bird” rituals with their owners. The patient that is benefited by sedation is usually the one that has an increased level of anxiety. The agents commonly used may be herbal, like an herb tea with chamomile, an herbal preparation that includes chamomile or Bach’s flower preparations. These herbal remedies are helpful in many cases, but many others require stronger medications such as daily oral haloperidol.
Some patients respond to clomipramine.
It is extremely important that the owner understand that these do not cure the problem but are sometimes useful temporary tools. Clinical improvement while on these agents does not represent achievement of a long term goal and should not be used as such. These chemical interventions may also be used as temporary component of the treatment plan for other syndromes as well (especially separation anxiety) and there is often beneficial overlap.
The author has helped the owners of many non-fledged adult birds to fledge and develop master flight skills. It doesn’t happen as easily as it does when they are of an appropriate age and they usually need a lot of encouragement.
The development of a daily ritual is helpful. The author often recommends starting with safe landing exercises onto a bed, followed by lots of praise and reward. This works best with two people – one to gently release the bird from a short distance at first over the bed. The other person acts as the “landing coach” and rewarder. The bird will instinctively flap its wings on the way down to the bed and will eventually begin to learn to rotate the wings into a stall position and land on their feet, rather than their face or breast. As they progress, this distance may be increased, slowly helping the bird make longer and longer flights. The bird may also be released in such a way as to require it to fly upward a short distance to a safe perch.
In the authors experience, this is also done over the bed which provides a “safety net” should the bird fall. The more positive, safe and fun experiences they have, the more confidence they will achieve. Eventually, they should be provided a perch to land on, such as a wooden perch or the landing coach’s arm. A vocal command should be employed to create an association with the act of flight. The author uses “fly bird” (before and during the flight). Finally, more advanced training involves flights from longer and longer distances. It is ideal if there is a way to practice flying down from height, such as from a loft or a ceiling beam. Turns into rooms from a hallway are also advanced skills that should become a part of the lessons. When the bird has developed superior flight skills, it should be able to easily change its flight plan and find an alternative landing site while in mid-air. The end result should be the development of a standard flight pattern in the house that the owner can encourage the bird to practice on a daily basis. This provides the added advantage of allowing the bird to get a healthy amount of aerobic exercise on a daily basis which is very helpful in maintaining general health as well as burning off energy that may otherwise build up and contribute to development or the severity of behavioral exaggerations. The author finds that daily flying is as beneficial to the pet bird as the “Dog Whisperer” does in pet dogs that enjoy daily walks and runs.
Flock social structure
An important component of any treatment plan involves the development of a healthy flock social structure.
Since most of our patients are now hand raised and therefore imprinted to some degree, the patient’s instinctive behaviors that play a role in their interactions with flock members extend to the human owners. This also makes the human a potential mate in the perspective of the bird.
All humans and other ambulatory pets (including other pet birds) in the household should be identified relative to the social order of the flock. The bird usually has one or two “parents”. This parental role should evolve much the same way it does in a healthy human parent/child relationship. The role should mature from that of nurturing the dependent baby to that of providing protection, guidance and encouragement as the bird advances socially to a higher degree of independence.
Roles of human flock members
Ultimately, the parent should encourage the bird to interact with other flock members as appropriate to their status. One human may continue to be the primary contact and other members should assume the secondary role of “other flock member”. They may become a protecting, other parent or older brother or sister who also has physical interaction with the bird. This is the role most primary pet owners should enjoy. The other humans should be encouraged to participate in relationships with the bird that include handling if they have the desire and confidence to do so. The “warm potato” game, developed by Sally Blanchard is an excellent exercise to accomplish the socialization of the bird to several humans.
However in practice, the reality is that in many households there are humans who simply have no desire to participate. If they do not, then they should learn to respect the relationship the bird has with those humans that have contact relationships with it. This includes learning the “comfort zone” of the bird and respecting it. This is the physical space occupied by the bird and those humans who do handle it. This space is usually easy to identify when observing the behavior changes in the bird when these humans enter the zone. The ideal relationship between an owner and their bird is one where there is mutual respect and trust. The owner should, however, be encouraged to develop a leadership role of authority.
This involves the establishment of rules, limitations, and boundaries.
Birds can easily learn where they are allowed to go and where they are not. It is simply a matter of rewarding their appropriate behavior and mostly ignoring and/or redirecting the inappropriate.
Too often, owners (like some inexperienced parents of small children) tend to focus on the inappropriate behaviors and forget to reward the appropriate behaviors. The result is that the inappropriate behaviors are reinforced while the appropriate behaviors diminish. An owner needs to be ever vigilant to the behaviors of their bird and discipline themselves to respond to and reward the bird for sitting quietly, eating, vocalizing in an appropriate manner and any other behavior they may be displaying that is considered appropriate. If the owner asks the bird for attention by rewarding these behaviors much more often than the bird is asking for attention by displaying inappropriate behaviors like screaming or going to “off limits” places, then the bird will display the rewarded behaviors more and the ignored ones less.
An important exercise that the owner should practice involves the use of the “step up” command.
Each time the owner wants the bird to step up onto the hand, this command should be given and the bird should be verbally rewarded for compliance. In the case of a bird that has a fear of falling and shows refusal or avoidance due to this fear, the owner should move in very close to the bird to eliminate any space between the owner’s body and the bird, giving the bird an increased sense of confidence that a fall is unlikely. An example of the interactions an owner may have includes shoulder sitting. It is popular to discourage owners from allowing their bird to sit on their shoulder. The author agrees if the owner is not the controlling member of the relationship and the bird is able to control its movements in that position. If, however, the owner is in complete control, then shoulder sitting is usually acceptable. The bird must immediately comply with a command to step up with no attempt to avoid this command. The bird should not use this position to bite the owner for attention. Very importantly, the owner must strictly enforce flock territory rules when the bird is in this position and not allow other flock members to attempt to control the bird when it is in this position. The bird may bite the owner to request they enforce this rule or to punish the owner for allowing the infringement.
It is extremely critical that the owner avoid the development of a mate bond with the pet.
This transition would rarely, if ever, occur in the natural setting and can be very detrimental to the behavioral stability of the bird. It is simply not fair to stimulate the reproductive drive of a bird that may end up believing the human is its mate. If the bird exhibits reproductive behaviors, such as feeding regurgitation or masturbation, these behaviors should not be encouraged or rewarded. They should also not result in punishment from the owner. The owner should simply redirect the behavior to other more healthy interactions.
It is important that the human-human interactions that take place in the presence of the bird be controlled and limited to positive, pleasant, harmonious interactions.
When the human flock members have negative, dramatic interactions, the bird often is frightened by this disharmony. Corrections administered to children by parents, for example, should not take place in the presence of the bird. Neither should conflicts between human spouses or friends be acted out in its presence. The author routinely warns owners that prey birds are “emotion radars”. They can sense (and respond to) even very subtle changes in the emotional atmosphere of their social environment.
The flock territory and the consistent schedule
In the opinion and experience of the author and others, the development of a healthy human/bird flock also involves a spatial organization that includes separate roosting and activity areas.
In the natural state, all birds in a flock have the ability to get the attention and communicate with the other flock members at all times. During the day, different members of the flock may separate to pursue different activities appropriate for their age class, but vocal communication is nearly always possible. In most cases, they tend to roost and nest in an area separate from their main foraging area(s). In most human/bird flocks, owners at first complain that this is not practical. In the author’s personal experience and when owners do commit to such a two-territory management strategy, the rewards are enormous. If the bird’s cage is maintained in the main family activity area as often recommended, then several problems often arise. First, the proximity to busy activity may cause constant or frequent activation of the bird’s fight or flight reflex. This seems to be common in birds that are in heavy traffic areas.
This is especially true of the phobic bird that has little self confidence and an inadequate sense of security. An over dependent bird may begin to exhibit more and more inappropriate or self destructive behaviors as a means of capturing the undivided attention of the owner in order to feel the safety that the owner’s focused attention affords. This is less of a problem with birds that have a healthy degree of self confidence and independence. Often the human flock members stay up at night long after what would be a healthy bedtime for the bird. Many birds simply go to sleep but this sleep is often not a sound restful sleep if there is activity in the room, even if the cage is covered.
Many others are stimulated to stay active late into the night. In the natural state, their activity is directly linked to the cycles of the sun. In this author’s opinion a significant deviation from this may contribute to behavior problems. They are most likely to thrive when they are allowed 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep time.
The most important part of the consistent schedule is this regular sleep time.
This is consistent with the diurnal nature of these species in the wild. They are active during the day and when the sun goes down, the flock roosts together for the night. In the author’s experience and opinion, birds that have a fairly consistent daily schedule of interaction with their owners seem more likely to thrive more than those whose owners change their comings and goings a lot. A common trigger event that marks the beginning point of many behavior problems is when the owner’s schedule changes abruptly. However, a bird that otherwise has a high degree of self confidence and flock security and is managed naturally with an otherwise consistent schedule is easily able to tolerate quite a lot of random, inconsistent events. These birds are very happy going with the owners to visit new places and meet new people. The over-dependent, frightened bird forced to endure too random a social interaction schedule is highly likely to suffer severe behavioral crisis. These patients should be introduced to new people and events very slowly, according to their degree of comfort and social advancement. The ideal management seems to be where the bird has one or two fairly consistent times of interaction with the owner each day (preferably in the morning and at bedtime) and is also exposed to a variety of new people, objects, and experiences during the day. This combination of a consistent base schedule, interjected with a variety of more inconsistent experiences is a common history of the more successful pets in the author’s experience.
In analyzing the social status of an individual, discovering the exact nature of the sleeping arrangements becomes very important. They will usually feel the safest if given a space that is very near other flock members sleeping areas. In the case of a single bird, a location either in the owner’s bedroom or in an adjacent room is sometimes ideal. If the owners are a couple themselves or are likely to sometimes share sleeping arrangements with another human, however, this could also prove to be detrimental. The bird that is bonded to one of the humans should not be exposed to a certain level of intimate interaction between the humans. It is also important that the bird not be kept up late at night by human nocturnal activities of other varieties, as well.
They should have a cage, play perch, or other designated area to occupy in the main activity area during the daytime when the flock is present. A completely separate “flock-room” works well in the case of multi-bird flocks. This avoids isolation as they have each other to provide the necessary flock security. The author has come to believe that the ideal situation is a separate room with more than one bird present in separate cages. The hierarchy of these birds must, however, be strictly respected. Older members are given the higher positions and are fed first. In this context, an “older” member may also be one that may be chronologically younger, but has more seniority in the flock. This is the position an over dependent bird under behavioral modification treatment for that over dependency or for excessive fear should also receive. This author often recommends that owners of single pet birds purchase one or more canaries or finches that may serve as flock companions in a flock room. These caged birds are ideal because they rarely develop a bond with the owners and are usually content to live in their large, well equipped cages without the need for out-of-cage interaction. They therefore rarely represent competition for the owner’s attention by the patient. The cage(s) of these small birds should be slightly lower than that of the patient’s cage, giving the patient a feeling of seniority.
Buying another baby psittacine on the premise of providing a “companion” for the existing one can also work, but care must be taken to avoid placing the new bird in a position of higher seniority and attention in the view of the existing bird. Unfortunately, they often end up spending more time and emotional energy on the new baby than they do with the existing bird. They will first hand feed, then nurture and play with it in front of the first one. They sometimes will even inadvertently give it a higher roosting spot when they place it in a newer, bigger cage that they felt guilty not providing for the first one. Often treating the newcomer to more attention and larger cage are ways the owners absolve their guilt they feel over the first one. This kind of behavior is an obvious breach of flock rules and inevitably, the first one suffers behavioral damage and is at higher risk for developing behavior problems – especially excessive screaming and aggression. Ironically, the common response to these problems by the owners is isolation, which of course, just makes the problems worse, often leading to feather destruction and mutilation. The author feels that the term “jealousy” is too anthropomorphic a term to exactly apply to this situation, but certainly a atmosphere of competition may arise that can be detrimental to the emotional stability of both new and existing birds if their respective positions in the flock are not strictly enforced.
The pet may be taken into the activity area on a consistent schedule that is practical for the owner to maintain. A reasonably easy schedule to maintain for most owners starts with some time in the morning. This time should ideally begin at the same time each morning. The activity should include some eating together. It doesn’t seem to matter a lot if the bird is in the cage at the time or out, just that the owner and the bird are both present and both eating. Depending on the owner’s lifestyle, the bird may come out to the activity area for some amount of time or the owner may go to work for the day. Later in the day when the owner gets home from work, the bird should be able to again have time with the owner, either with the bird in the activity area or the owner in the bird’s area. The author highly recommends that there be another feeding time and the bird should be in the same room or in visual contact when the owner is eating. This may range from the bird getting to go on the owner’s table to share dinner to the bird eating dinner on its own table or perch near the owner’s table or it may even mean the bird is in its cage but in eyesight of the owner as they eat. Eating together is a very healthy activity.
“Trick training” and rituals
The author also advocates the development of healthy interactive activities for the patient. This goes beyond the standard approach of making the food more interesting or difficult to obtain that many sources recommend. These strategies do, indeed, provide the opportunity for the bird to have an activity that simulates natural foraging and learning and should be encouraged.
During the times that the bird is separated from the owner, it is important to provide toys and other objects for the bird to manipulate andchew. The author asserts that they also need a certain amount of ritualistic, interactive activity with the owner to simulate the natural social interactions between flock members. Many owners inadvertently have trained their birds to do certain behaviors in response to learned cues and they don’t even realize what they have started. An example is the common reward for defecating. Many owners see this as a very healthy act, so they reward the behavior lavishly by giving dramatic attention and saying a word or phrase that defines the act. Some say “good potty”, others say, “good poo poo”. At the author’s house the word is “doodle”. Many owners are delighted to learn that by creating this association between the act, the word and the praise reward, they can actually ask the bird for the act with the word. The bird will usually comply (or try to) in order to illicit the praise reward.
Trick training using this technique is possible for any behavior the bird might do. In fact, many owners, out of extreme concern or frustration, inadvertently create this kind of association with the very behaviors this presentation is an effort to correct. This often leads to the problem behavior becoming an attention-getting device.
In order to correct this problem it is very useful to first create similar associations with as many appropriate behaviors as possible.
Then make a daily ritual of asking the bird to perform the associated behaviors in response to the word (cue) and give lavish praise reward for compliance. If the owners discipline themselves to asking for the bird’s attention by requesting a behavior by name and then rewarding it more often than the bird would otherwise ask for the owner’s attention with an inappropriate behavior, then the inappropriate behaviors tend to diminish. All birds have their own “independent time” when in the presence of an owner who is not paying active attention to them. Some species generally have longer times than others, but the more self confident birds of any species have longer times. It is possible to determine this time for the patient and instruct the owner to “push the bird’s button” more often than the bird “pushes the owner’s button”. The author has seen and owns birds that will do all kinds of behaviors on cue, including “do your eagle” (spread wings), “fly bird” (come), “fly up high” (fly to a designated perch), “turn on the lights” (literally meant), “lounge” (lay back in the owners hand), “dangle” (hang upside down from a finger), “gimme 4” or “wave bye bye” (hold up a foot and wave it), etc. The list is endless. There have been many TV appearances of birds doing all manner of “tricks” that use either food or praise rewards or both. The author asserts that this kind of ritual is a very powerful way to combat the underlying causes of stress-related exaggerated behaviors.
Besides the number of clinical successes seen by the author in cases where these rituals were employed as a component of the treatment strategy, more evidence for their efficacy in treatment comes from the following experience. A client and her daughter presented a cockatoo that had begun to pick its body feathers. The daughter had become completely convinced that her bird was picking its feathers due to zinc poisoning. She had been on the internet and had made this diagnosis based on her bird’s habit of chewing the cage bars a lot. In the history was evidence that this bird had a very poorly defined schedule since the daughter changed her job a few weeks before and the routine she and the bird used to have had been replaced with a very quickly changing and random interaction schedule. The daughter insisted that the bird was OK with that and surely the zinc must be responsible for the onset of the behavior. A blood test revealed that the zinc level was one unit over “normal limits”. The bird was otherwise healthy with no classic symptoms of zinc toxicity. The bird was actually owned by the mother who came by herself for a separate consultation about the behavior. She agreed that the bird was probably upset about the discontinuation of the regular interaction it used to have with the daughter and agreed to a clinical trial that involved having the daughter give a twice daily oral dose of medicine for the “zinc poisoning”. Unknown to the daughter, the medicine was a flavored placebo. She was instructed to give this with minimal if any restraint twice daily at exactly the same times each day for 3 weeks. She managed to arrange her work schedule to comply, as she was convinced the picking would stop when the poisoning was cured. Indeed, well before the three weeks were up, the bird had completely stopped picking and was allowing the feathers to regrow. The daughter was very pleased until the mother informed her that she was giving a placebo, but she could not deny the success. To this day, she continues to give the bird some liquid every day, twice a day. The bird continues to be free of the problem behavior. The liquid now varies; sometimes it is apple juice, sometimes orange juice. She finds it doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it is on time. Her schedule remains as random otherwise, but this is a flighted bird that has nothing else pushing very hard on its stress meter’s needle.
Reproductive hormone treatments
There are a number of recommendations that are commonly made to reduce reproductively driven behaviors. Don’t allow nest acquisition. Reduce the amount of light exposure. Reduce and modify the amount of and/or nature of intimate physical interaction. Don’t encourage or reward behaviors like masturbation or feeding. Don’t expose the bird to the reproductively active birds outside through the window. These and other recommendations are indeed useful, but limited in their power to eliminate reproductive behaviors.
There have been many recommendations regarding the use of hormone treatments with human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) and/or leuprolide acetate (Lupron).
In the experience of the author, they seem to benefit a large percentage of patients. The most obvious symptoms treated are excessive egg laying and reproductive dominance aggression. Many birds exhibiting most of the other forms of exaggerated behaviors may also respond to some extent. The author refers to the stress meter analogy. Even if the primary stress factor is not directly related to reproductive activity, many birds have some component of hormonal pressure that may affect their behavior. After all, reproductive hormones are thought to drive preparatory behaviors long before actual reproductive activity takes place in most vertebrates, including humans. The variable degrees of success are probably due to the extent which the owner is able to initiate and follow through with other components of the treatment plan. An obvious example is the bird that regularly has sex on the owner’s chest requires a much higher dose of hormone to get them to stop if the owner won’t stop putting the bird in that position and rubbing its back. In this case, many owners don’t even realize they are sexually stimulating the bird. They think this is a nurturing behavior on their part, even though the bird is several years old. The more owners are able to comply with the above strategies and implement the suggestions leading to a more natural human/bird flock management style, the more likely it is that the bird will require a much smaller dose of hormone to produce the desired results. In most cases, the hormone treatments may eventually be discontinued as these other long-term strategies begin to produce results on their own.
Other chemical interventions
The several forms of sedation that are occasionally useful are discussed in the section above on flight and helping the bird to regrow wing feathers. These drugs and herbs may also be helpful in some cases of separation anxiety, over dependence, and fear problems, but the author asserts that they should only be used as a temporary adjunct to the more meaningful long term techniques discussed in this presentation.
In summary, the author has found that it is first very important for the owner to become familiar with basic flock strategies and natural instinctive behavior. This understanding encourages a higher compliance with sometimes very difficult long-term treatment requirements. It also gives them the insight they need to tailor the rules and structure of their human/bird flock in a way that is both successful and practical to their circumstances. It is then very helpful to fully classify the nature of the problem behavior(s) and the underlying cause(s) involved. This allows the practitioner and owner to determine which components of the recommended treatment strategies have the highest likelihood of being practical for the owner and successful for the patient. It also is useful in tracking the progress of the patient over time.
Key to the successful resolution of most behavior problems are the following: understanding the natural instincts and the basis for flock and individual behaviors; allowing and encouraging the development of a higher degree of parental independence and self confidence through flight; and developing a healthy natural flock social environment by establishing a structure of authority with mutual trust and respect. The most frustrating aspect of managing behavior problems is that many owners purchased their bird under a false presumption that keeping a large psittacine happy and emotionally healthy is easy and nearly automatic, regardless of their individual circumstances. When these behavior problems manifest themselves, the pet often becomes a huge emotional and financial burden. This can seriously interfere with their willingness to comply with the various requirements for long term success and they will continue to quest for the silver bullet and the magical cure that, unfortunately, simply does not exist.
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