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.
Key words: behavior modification, pet bird production, pet bird management, feather picking, mutilation,
screaming, aggression, fears, phobias, instinctive behaviors, fledging, flying, flock dependence, over
dependence, parental independence, flock strategy, prey bird survival, reproductive drive, natural
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
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.
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
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 ˝ 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 Link to the full PDF file