Feather Destructive Behavior (as opposed to normal preening when birds groom their feathers and skin free from dirt or foreign particles and correct any feather distortions) is excessive and obsessive self grooming that can include one or all of the following abnormalities: barbering or chewing feathers; picking or plucking them out; and, in severe cases, self-mutilation.
In a severe case of plucking, the bird can be completely naked from the head down. Indicators of feather picking include the presence of healthy head feathers, feather loss where you can see the skin, and/or shortened or mutilated feathers in body areas accessible to a bird’s beak (including the wing skin fold, inner thighs, and breast).
But even more worrisome than feather picking is the associated self-mutilation. Essentially, self-mutilation involves a bird biting, pecking or chewing on its own flesh, often in the breast area. Unfortunately, as the area of mutilation becomes lacerated, nerve and tissue damage can result, causing increased discomfort, and hence the bird chews on itself even more. Although the breast area is the most commonly seen area affected by self-mutilation, some birds have been known to consume one or more of their own toes.
TYPES OF FEATHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR
Barbering: This is when the bird chews on the ends of the feathers. Some birds will chew the feathers off a little bit at a time, never completely removing the feather. It might affect just the barbules or the shaft itself. In its most severe stage the feather would be shortened to just a little piece of shaft coming out of the skin.
Plucking: Feather plucking is when the birds completely remove the feather by pulling it out at the base of the shaft. . Repeated feather plucking over a period of time can cause permanent follicle damage, thus preventing these feathers from ever returning.
Self-mutilation: In severe cases the birds will self-mutilate soft tissue areas on their breasts, legs, and backs causing sores and bleeding. Tissue damage can be so extensive that the wounds never heal and these open sores become ideal breeding ground for bacterial infections. On occasion, even after getting the wounds stitched, the bird would open up the stitches to continue hurting himself. In the most tragic cases birds will self-mutilate until death occurs from bleeding.
CAUSES OF FEATHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR
It is being recognized more and more that, in most cases, the initial cause of FDB, especially in hand-feddomestic birds, is physical with behavior playing a part in its continuation. Physical causes can include disease, traumatic injury, malnutrition, poor physical care, allergies, and/or a substandard environment. A diagnosis of a possible medical cause is the very first step to take.
Your veterinarian should conduct a complete physical exam, looking for lumps, injuries, feather cysts, lipomas or other tumors. Diagnostic tests should, at a minimum, include a CBC (Complete Blood Count), complete blood chemistry panels and vent, crop and skin swabs. Tests should be run for parasitic, yeast, fungal, and bacterial infections, as well as for psittacosis, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, Giardia and Polyoma. Other tests may include radiographs or a skin biopsy.
But regardless of whether a physical cause is found, parrots that engage in this aberrant behavior should always have a dramatic enrichment of their lives. No medical treatment, dietary or environmental change will ever be successful without it because even when the medical/physical cause disappears, the habit remains.
SOME DISEASE-RELATED CAUSES OF FEATHER PLUCKING:
- Endocrine diseases such as low thyroid levels, progesterone or testosterone imbalances
- Virus-related/feather disorders such as PBFD, PDD, French molt, Psittacine pox, canary pox, polyoma.
- Bacterial-related feather disorders such as bacterial sinusitis, feather folliculitis, Chlamydia (Please take into consideration that plucking can not only be a result of folliculitis, but can cause it as well. Also, self-mutilation can lead to secondary bacterial infections, which causes more self-mutilation, setting up a cycle very hard to break.
- Fungal diseases (for example: yeast)
- Internal organ diseases (for example: fatty liver)
- Internal tumors or kidney disease may cause birds to pluck diseased area
- Poor nutrition
- Food allergies, especially to seeds
- Pruritis: “Itchy Bird,” caused by:
Ø Internal parasites such as roundworms and tapeworms
Giardia infections (can trigger severe skin irritation)
Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections of the skin and feathers
Ø Yeast infections
Ø Staphylococcus aureus infections
Ø Intestinal, respiratory, or crop infection can cause whole-body pruritis because of a hypersensitivity reaction
Ø Inhaled allergens
Ø Contact allergens
Ø Ingested allergens
Ø Dry, flaky skin or thickened reddened skin dermatitis Folliculitis
Ø Improper wing clipping, where the cut shafts poke the bird’s back
Ø External parasites such as feather mites are very rarely a cause.
Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)
Low thyroid function is a fairly rare occurrence but it’s not unheard of, and signs of hypothyroidism include thickened dry skin, persistent bacterial and fungal infections, excessive feather loss during molt or a delayed/repressed molt, obesity and poor feather quality in combination with feather picking. It is a condition difficult to document in birds as the T4 test to confirm hypothyroidism has not been especially sensitive and it requires a TSH stimulation test in addition to the T4 and baseline thyroid level tests. Presumptive diagnosis is possible based on symptoms and response to thyroxine but it may be overdiagnosed clinically and, as thyroid medication is toxic in high doses, tests are needed on a regular basis to ensure the replacement levels of oral thyroid supplements are adequate and for cardiac disease and other hypothyroidism related conditions.
Another cautionary note about thyroid testing is that thyroid function may be different in birds than in mammals. Birds have seasonally wide fluctuations in thyroid levels and some species (especially Amazons) levels seem to decrease during breeding periods and then increase after the breeding season ushering in the molt.
Progesterone or testosterone imbalance
Progesterone or testosterone imbalance is usually corrected by spaying/neutering birds or hormonal injections although New York Birds recommends decreasing the environmental triggers for reproductive behavior, namely keeping the bird on a strict natural daylight schedule, removing perceived nesting areas, feed a diet of lower protein and vitamin E (some recommend dry food only during the cold weather months), and minimize as much as possible masturbation by the bird and petting that might result in sexual arousal.
Typically, birds do not breed based on a monthly rhythm; instead they breed because a variety of stimuli are present. The importance of the specific stimuli vary depending on the species but can include a nesting site, increased availability of food, weight gain, appropriate temperature, an increase or decrease in daylight hours, and ascendancy in the flock. Many of our birds, instead of cycling in and out of breeding condition, are constantly in breeding condition due to the fact that owners do not strive to reproduce the birds natural life cycles. This seems in some species to lead to picking. Other conditions such as follicular cysts may lead birds to be constantly in the prophase of breeding and may be associated with mutilation.
We suspect hormonal involvement when picking coexists with broody type of behavior, with some seasonal picking, when birds pick their leggings, and with certain cases of mutilation. Specific tests that can be helpful include estradiol and androstenedione ( University of Tennessee Endocrine lab). Breeding readiness and follicular cysts can also be suggested by radiographs and confirmed by endoscopy.
Drugs that have seemingly been helpful in reducing feather picking associated with reproductive behavior include the following:
o Depo-Provera (medroxyprogesterone acetate) is synthetic progesterone sometimes used for birth control in humans. This drug is not used much anymore in birds because of its many side effects.
o HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) is widely used and seems to have little in the way of side effects. Practitioners report variable results with HCG. In my hands, it is very effective with certain birds. To get a good effect, I seem to need to use HCG on a weekly or biweekly basis.
o Lupron (a synthetic analog of gonadotropin-releasing hormone) works by obliterating blood levels of estrogen or testosterone for weeks to months. This drug is currently in its trial stages and shows some promise for mutilators.
Other drugs which may have some effects on reproductive behavior and which may help feather picking associated with endocrine activity include a zona pellucida (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zona_pellucida)vaccine currently being investigated by Dr. Ritchie, and cyproheptadine (an anti-serotonin drug) which may make some birds less likely to breed because they perceive that there are inadequate food supplies. Further, melatonin which affects the pineal gland and then ultimately the adrenal gland seems to help many birds. Melatonin may be working by decreasing estrogen or testosterone or it may simply have a calming or sedating effect. Fluoxetine (prozac), which has prolactin effects, has not been useful in most cases for feather picking. However, in combination with HCG, it has worked to stop chronic egg laying in cockatiels.
VIRUS RELATED INFECTIOUS DISEASES
Ø Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). The species most susceptible to PBFD are old world birds. We suspect PBFD when we have abnormal feather development. Often feather development becomes increasingly abnormal with each molt. These birds usually do not aggressively pick feathers and are usually not pruritic (itchy). Lovebirds may have few or no feather lesions. The PBFD PCR identifies the organism in the blood and is a sensitive and specific test of this disease.
Ø Proventricular Dilation Disease (PDD). PDD affects all avian species. Signs include weight loss, vomiting, passing whole seed in the droppings, and neurological deficits. Additionally, many birds with PDD pick their feathers. The cause of this is suspected to be either neurological or due to inadequate absorption of essential nutrients or fatty acids. Currently a specific test for this disease is being trialed at the University of Georgia . This test looks for the presence of viral DNA in blood and feces and looks at antibody response. While this test is in trial, we continue to screen for this disease with radiographs, crop biopsies, and serial CK isoenzymes.
Ø Polyoma virus is a very stable virus and can live up to 6 months in an environment . It is easy to transmit from pet shops, bird marts, bird owner’s homes, virtually anywhere birds can be found. The pathogen is considered one of the most significant to cage birds around the world. The highly infectious disease effects most if not all parrot species. Most birds infected will die within a few days and no specific treatment is available. Most birds that die from Polyoma are under 100 days old, BUT IT CAN AFFECT ANY AGE BIRD. Polyoma is believed to have an incubation period of approximately two weeks. Polyoma virus affects feathers in juvenile budgerigars but feather abnormalities are rare in the larger psittacines.
FUNGUS RELATED INFECTIOUS DISEASES
Ø Systemic Aspergillosis has also been implicated as a cause of feather picking. We suspect aspergillosis in birds with respiratory abnormalities or when a screening complete blood count ( CBC ) shows a high count and monocytosis, and protein electrophoresis shows abnormal globulin patterns. Aspergillosis can be an illusive disease to definitively diagnose. Specific tests include antigen or antibody levels. Some fungal granulomas can be confirmed by x-ray or endoscopy. Positive antigen or antibody results may indicate exposure, infection, or even an allergic reaction to the organism. Negative test results do not rule out infection as a negative bird may have an infection with a walled off granuloma or because it is not mounting an immune response. Treatment involves oral itraconazole, intratracheal amphotericin B and/or nebulization with chlortrimizole.
INTERNAL ORGAN OR METABOLIC DISEASES
Kidney disease and liver conditions have been associated with plucking. Internal organ disease of a chronic nature, such as hepatitis or egg yolk peritonitis and abdominal tumors often manifests itself as self-trauma to the feathers. The cause of this is unknown. A full blood testing will determine whether any of these conditions are present. Some, like fatty liver disease, are diet related and would be taken care of with a good diet (please refer to our Diet Froum for more detailed and species-specific diets).
Over the last twenty years, dietary suggestions from expert certified avian vets have changed as many times as the seasons. We’ve been directed to feed our birds everything from all seeds, to table food, to just pellets, to not just pellets, to finally, a blend of all of the above–excepting foods containing high fat, high salt, animal protein, lactose, caffeine, high sugar content, high preservative content. What’s presented here are good, logical choices of healthy foods for your birds. Always keep in mind the use of pesticides, when feeding fresh foods, and always think “healthy”. If you ever question whether a food is acceptable, or not, for your bird, call an avian vet and confirm the choice.
The issues of diet and health are very controversial in the bird world. We should first think about what your specific species of parrot eat in the wild. This is very important because, contrary to what the bird industry would like you to believe, no two species have the same dietary needs. Then, we have to keep in mind the bird’s activity level, whether or not he’s molting (shedding his feathers), or whether or not she may be laying eggs (some hens lay infertile eggs for no apparent reason). There are many different things on the market to feed your bird that may be marketed as a “total diet” but none, I repeat, none are truly complete.
- Pelleted diets: These are similar to rabbit pellets or dog kibble. There are many different brands on the market, many with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives that can have a harmful effect on your bird’s health. If choosing to feed pellets, choose one that is certified organic, with nothing artificial. These may cost more, but will most likely keep your bird healthy longer. Pellets are designed to try to provide all the nutrients parrots need to stay healthy, but they cannot provide enzymes and natural nutrients that whole foods provide. Many vets recommend pellets, but many bird guardians prefer to prepare fresh foods instead. (A diet of 100% pellets is not recommended. Lorie and Lorikeets should never be fed pellets, and Parakeets [Budgies] and Indian Ringnecks, only sparingly. Especially for small birds, pellets should be selected with great care; should be organic, not be extruded, not be a concentrated pellet, not contain high sucrose or dyes.)
- Fresh foods: Many people feed fresh and cooked vegetables and fruits to their birds. Parrots are especially sensitive to Vitamin A deficiency, so it’s important to feed foods with lots of vitamin A such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and papayas. Grains and legumes are also wonderful for birds. Plain oatmeal, cooked beans, whole wheat pasta, and grains like quinoa are very healthy. Many healthy human foods are also healthy for birds but they need to be organic and contain no caffeine, sugar, salt, chocolate, alcohol, preservatives or any artificial color or flavoring. ( A diet of mostly fresh foods is recommended).
- Seeds: Seeds used to be fed as a total diet, until people realized that most parrots do not eat that many seeds in the wild and the ones they eat are green seeds and not available in the States. Seeds do have some nutritional value, but they do not provide total nutrition, which is why they should not be fed as a total diet. Most birds relish seeds and, if given them often, will refuse to eat anything but seeds. Be sure to purchase a high-quality mix, and take care that this mix does not grow annoying flour moths, which often hatch out of seed mixes. You should not freeze seeds as it decomposes the oils in them but you should keep them in the fridge or at least keep them in an air-tight container. It is possible that certain species (ground feeders such as Cockatiels, Greys, and Cockatoos) do well with more seed in their diets than others. Other species, such as Amazons and Macaws, may suffer from obesity if allowed too much fat in their diet, and Eclectus should get very little of them as their natural diet is very low in nutrients and protein. (Seeds should play a small part in your bird’s diet, depending on the species. Lories and Lorikeets should never be fed seeds).
- Cooked Food: Many people purchase commercial food mixes made especially for parrots. These mixes are often mixed with water and cooked on the stovetop, and then served to your bird. You can make extra and freeze this in ice cube trays for future use. Or, you can be creative and make your own mixes, birdybread and muffins. Home-cooked recipes (gloop) use organic grains, rice and other grains, baby food (with high vitamin A content like squash, carrots, etc.), mashed pumpkin and yams, canned, frozen or fresh vegetables, etc. Experiment; there are many foods that you might think your bird won’t eat, until you serve them a different way. A good way to feed a food that your bird doesn’t like is to puree it and cook it into a mix. Pellets can also be ground up in a food processor and mixed into cooked foods. (Personally, I swear by gloop).
- Supplements: Calcium and vitamin A deficiencies are still a serious health problem in parrots who are fed a primarily seed diet or too much human junk food. These two nutrients are essential for the proper growth and condition of tissue, skin, and feathers. There is also a direct relation between vitamin C and feather picking / skin mutilation. Another small, but very important function of Vitamin C is its natural anti-histamine action. Most people believe that all birds produce their own vitamins and so supplementation is unnecessary but a good quality vitamin supplement, given on a regular basis although not every day, can be very beneficial. A deficiency of enzymes and/or essential fatty acids in the diet will contribute to feather abuse. This most often occurs when more than 50% of the diet is comprised of cooked or manufactured foods in which these nutrients have been destroyed. That’s why fresh, organic food is so important in their diet. Calcium is another needed mineral which is usually lacking in birds. This is because calcium cannot be absorbed into the system unless there is vitamin D3 present and, as it is not found in any vegetal material and animal flesh is not recommended for parrots, it needs to be supplemented in the form of avian liquid calcium.
Miscellaneous notes: Too much of something can be as bad as too little. As with everything else, moderation is the way to go. Too much protein is as bad as too little protein, same with vitamin C… even spirulina has been found to cause screaming and erratic behavior in some birds. Watch your bird carefully, keep records of his schedule and diet, record all environmental conditions such as weather, unusual sounds, visitors, changes in routine, or changes in the home, or cage position and compare your notes frequently, this will help you determine what can be causing FDB.
FOOD ALLERGIES and METAL TOXICITY
Birds, like people, can be allergic to a wide variety of foods, the most common being: peanuts; wheat, corn and soy products; eggs; any artificial or chemical product like colorings, flavorings and preservatives but they can also be allergic to strawberries, oranges and any other number of things that we would normally consider ‘safe’.
It is always recommended that birds eat a completely organic diet (this includes distilled, spring or purified water for drink and bath) but for presenting symptoms of FDB, it is imperative that all allergens be removed from their diet. Take into consideration that most commercial bird food like pellets, treats, pasta, cereals, etc have peanuts and/or wheat products so they should be eliminated from the birds diet and, each element slowly re-introduced until it is determined to be safe for the bird.
There is a number of products that are now being offered to treat food allergies, like Allergy Supplement™, Noni juice (Tahitian only), MSM , and Una de gato (cat’s claw), and, of course, antihistamine (hydroxyzine dosed to effect in the water).
High zinc or lead levels in the bloodstream have been recognized as causing feather abusive behavior. These metals enter the parrot’s digestive tract when the bird mouths certain items. Most of the cases of metal toxicity of which I hear concern cockatoos, who are exceptionally “beaky” birds by nature and are often fascinated by metal objects.
Zinc is present in many forms in the parrot’s environment. Many of the fasteners used to hold toys to the cage are galvanized metal, which is coated with zinc. Bells on toys can contain zinc. The powder coating on some of the less expensive cages has been shown to contain zinc. One feather picking Umbrella Cockatoo who exhibited very high levels of zinc in his blood had a habit of drinking from the bathroom faucet. While doing so, he would scrape the inside of the fixture with his beak. The most frequently cited sources for lead toxicity include the leading on stained glass windows and other items. This is quite soft and readily yields to the pressure of a curious beak. The small seed beads used to make jewelry often contain lead. Some parrots have increased levels of lead from ingesting the weights that are placed in the bottom hem of draperies.
INHALED AND CONTACT ALLERGENS
Smoke, dander, perfumes, house deodorants, pollen, dust mold, candles (especially the ones with frangance), any kind of aerosol, soaps, laundry detergents, deodorants, paint, household cleaning products, hair products, litter or nest box material, latex, rubber, some metals, some topical antibiotics, resin, carbon monoxide… the list is endless. The only thing to do, in my personal opinion, is to keep everything as natural and clean as possible, never use human products on birds (be careful of bathing with your bird, a splash of water with soap in it can cause an allergic reaction), use always natural products for cleaning (like orange, lemon or lavender oil), wash your hands thoroughly before handling the bird, do not allow strangers to touch him, ventilate as much as possible during the warm weather months and use a good, powerful air purifier the rest of the year.
PHYSICAL BUT NOT MEDICAL CAUSES
- Improper wing clipping
- Injury or trauma
- Dry skin
- Inadequate lightning
- Lack of exercise
Improper wing clipping
I do not believe in wing clipping for many reasons but I will only mention one here and this is that some wing clips can cause a parrot to feather pick. One way this can occur is when the wing feathers are trimmed in such a way that it causes the trimmed feathers to poke into the sides of the bird and irritate that area. Another theory is that birds would ‘get rid’of a clipped feather as they perceive it to be an abnormal growing feather. This is done in order to maintain the integrity of the plumage, a matter of survival in the wild and encoded into their genes. Still a third theory is the one that has to do with a bird exercising by flapping its wings and not encountering the expected (and normal) resistance to the air which can frustrate the bird and prompt him to feather pick the offending wing as a result. But, whatever the reason, for some birds, clipping has been found to be the trigger that started them plucking and, in some cases, allowing the feathers to grow back has been the cure.
Injury or trauma
Injury plucking is most common in young birds. One of the major causes of injury plucking in babies is a fall in the cage which often ends up in a thrashing episode. Young parrots fall in or off of their cages for a variety of reasons: trimming the toenails too short; babies that are made to perch before they develop their balance skills; a bad landing due to clipped wings or undeveloped flying skills, etc Several types of injury can cause a bird to bother the feathers excessively, often resulting in their destruction. In the wild, young parrots which are startled or become afraid either hide or fly away from the situation — usually with the guidance of their parents. In captivity, a bird may instinctively attempt to fly but, instead, will end up crashing into their cage, tangling their wings and tails in the cage bars and grate. For this reason, it is important that the cage bar spacing and size of the cage is appropriate for the size of the bird. Grates in the bottom of the cage are particularly dangerous when birds are young.
Regular bathing is necessary for feather health, and a bird that has dirty feathers and/or dry itchy skin is more prone to plucking. Frequent showers or baths may help alleviate or prevent feather disorder behaviors in parrots. A completely drenched parrot will not pluck and baths also promote healthy preening and afford entertainment from the daily, boring routine of a captive bird. Baths should be always given in the morning, latest at noon, to allow sufficient time for drying up before bed time. They should also be given with cool, cold or room temperature distilled, spring or purified water, NEVER WARM! as it strips the natural oils from their skin and feathers. A splash of organic aloe vera juice helps to keep the skin and feathers supple. Using a humidifier during the cold season or dry times of the year is absolutely necessary for tropical and semi tropical birds.
Inadequate lightning and/or schedule
Inadequate lightning is one of the most important and most often neglected aspects of a captive bird’s life.
Birds don’t only see much better than humans but also use light to regulate their life cycles. It is so important to them that bird experts are beginning to consider it a nutrient more than an environmental incidental. They don’t only have twelve times more light receptors than humans do, they also have an extra photoreceptive cone that allows them to see ultra violet light (which is invisible to the human eye); their retinas contain no blood vessels, allowing them greater visual acuity as the light does not ‘scatter’ when it hits it; plus their eyes account, on average, for 15% of their head mass, against only 2% in humans. That, added to the fact that exposure to unfiltered or full spectrum light has been found to increase levels of serotonin (the feel good hormone) is a good argument for giving our birds the benefit of good lights. The March, 2005 issue of Veterinary Practice News mentions studies on self-plucking in birds that responded to supplementation with 5-hydroxytriptophan or 5-HTP. This amino acid derivative of tryptophan is important in the production of serotonin in the brain. But why give them a chemical when proper lightning can take care of the problem? All it requires is installing full spectrum lights with a CRI of more than 93 in the room where the bird is kept and opening the windows during the warm weather months so the sun can shine in.
Another incredibly beneficial measure for captive birds is keeping them to a strict natural daylight schedule. This practice does not only prevent chronic egg laying but also gives them the natural seasonal cycles that nature intended for them, provides the twilight triggers, maintains their metabolisms on the right track, allows for sufficient sleep and it’s free! Lack of sleep can contribute to a feather picking problem. Although species do differ in terms of the number of hours of sleep needed. Generally speaking, Central and South American parrots are happiest when getting a full 12 hours of darkness and uninterrupted rest. African Greys, once mature, frequently need a bit fewer hours of sleep than this. This is substantiated by the fact that they have been observed in the wild flying well after darkness has settled. Macaws are normally late risers but most birds will wake up as soon as some light creeps under their cage covers and waiting for the owner to uncover them can create a lot of stress and boredom, two reasons for plucking.
Lack of Exercise
Birds in the wild occupy their days flying for miles and miles to reach feeding sites, foraging, interacting with their mates or other members of the flock, courting, breeding, raising young, etc. Every single natural activity for parrots is denied to a captive bird. One of the most important ones being flying, which is the only exercise that birds need. Free flight, with the corresponding decision making that it implies, is a not a luxury for a captive bird but a necessity. It not only prevents obesity and respiratory infections, it also provides entertainment and a measure of control over their own lives.
- Insecurity, Stress
- Overcrowded housing: Finches in particular
- Overenthusiastic plucking of a brood patch
- Excessive courtship ‘ tab-stops:list .5in’>Parents persecuting their chicks to drive them from the nest so they can breed again (possibly an inherited trait)
While the last four causes are easily solved and only seasonal, the first three are the most difficult aspect of a parrot with FDB to change because an individual evaluation of each bird needs to be done in order to determine what is the lack.
SUGGESTIONS TO MODIFY FEATHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS:
Give The Bird More Control
Birds, especially highly intelligent species like parrots, need control over their own lifes. One way to achieve this is to announce what you are about to do to or with the bird. Some examples include asking the bird to step-up to your finger, tell it you are giving it food or water, let it know you are about to give it a bath or it’s time for bed. Another is to encourage the bird to talk and to learn to ask for what it wants. Of course, when it asks for what it wants, it’s important to reward that by giving the bird what it asked for.
Give The Bird a Sense of Security
Create rituals and predictability in every way possible. Parrots love rituals because they enjoy being able to anticipate with certainty what is going to happen next. The issue of predictability is closely related with their innate need as prey animals to feel safe. In the wild, most things are predictable. The sun rises and sets without fail. Even the land dwelling animals in the area will tend to behave in predictable, cyclic ways…foraging and resting at certain times of the day. It is only predators who are unpredictable, appearing out of nowhere. Thus, for a parrot who has learned to feel anxiety, any method that you can use to create predictability will be helpful.
The location of the cage can also have a huge impact upon a parrot’s sense of security. If the cage is in front of a window, this can afford the bird a profound sense of vulnerability. Parrots, if alone in the wild, do not normally perch in a location where they are highly visible. In order to feel secure, parrots need the conviction, the absolute knowledge, of physical and psychological safety. Often a parrot will live quite happily in front of a window until the day that a juvenile hawk perches outside staring at him, or a wild bird slams into the window, and from that day forward the window itself is perceived as a threatening aspect of the environment. In such cases, it can help to shift the cage slightly to the side, so that only half of the cage is in front of the window, and a wall shields the other half. That way, the bird has a choice and can move from a place of exposure to a place of “hiding.” If his cage is near a stairway or a doorway where people “appear out of nowhere,” then his cage should be moved to a quieter location, while still located in the living area so that he can be near his human “flock.” If this is not possible, then family members will need to learn to stop just outside of the room and verbally announce their impending entrance, so that he is not abruptly startled when people appear near his cage. A cage placed against a wall or with a cloth draped over the back will helpful in giving the bird a feeling of safety.
Entertainment! – Entertainment! – Entertainment!
Ladders, swings, boings, natural branches (make sure they are not poisonous and that they are washed with soap and water and baked at a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes to kill all parasites, insects and fungi), plucking toys, foraging toys, musical toys, etc. etc. Nothing needs to be costly, most times the least expensive items are the ones that work the best. Put several natural whisk brooms in the cage. They are cheap (I buy them in the 99 cent stores) and provide a texture that birds find appealing. Natural perches with bark offer an amusing distraction. Tie leather and sisal strips to the cage bars (but make sure the pieces are short enough not to cause a safety hazard). Old baby toys like rattles or teething rings, even baby mobiles are colorful and safe for them to play with. Balls in different sizes and textures, old milk containers, braided strips of old ‘cotton tee shirts, Dixie cups with papers tied around the top and a treat hidden inside, threaded organic and whole grain pasta in different shapes alternating with dried organic fruits, organic flowers for them to eat like dandelions, roses and all the pumpkin and squashes varieties, mirrors (but only if the FDB is found not to be caused by elevated hormonal levels), all fashioned clothes pins (the ones without the wire in them), one of my parrots favorite things is rolled up magazines and catalaogs for them to shred and chew. Music! Leave a radio on (no TV, though, the way the TV screen emits light is found to cause hyperactivity in children) but make sure that the bird cannot reach the electrical cord.
Observation (do the ABC of parrot behavior)
The ABC of parrot behavior is simple:
Antecedent – what brought on a certain behavior? what happened immediately before the behavior became manifest?
Behavior – Take note of the behavior itself
Consequence – What was the consequence of the behavior?
(For more on ABC’s of parrot behavior, see http://www.thegabrielfoundation.org/PDFFiles/ABC.pdf
Observe your parrot, study his behavior patterns. Strive for objectivity. Get acquainted with what his body language looks like when he’s startled or scared. With many species, the feathers will be held tightly in toward the body, the neck will elongate, and he may look rather “wide-eyed.” Anxiety in African Greys is often demonstrated by dancing from one leg to the other while biting the toenails of the elevated foot, or by twisting of the head in a figure-eight motion while seeming to look upward. Generalized anxiety or stress often results in lack of play, fewer vocalizations, and sometimes-decreased food intake. Extreme anxiety will result in the more obvious behaviors of feather picking or phobia. On the other hand, a relaxed, happy parrot will vocalize frequently, eat hungrily, preen normally and find ways to invite social contact with us. “Happiness behaviors” will also be observed. These include tail wags, stretches that include the wing and leg on one side of the body stretching at the same time, fluffed head feathers, and wings raised together in unison as a greeting.
During your period of observation, make note of any incidents that startle him or cause your parrot to look afraid or anxious. Once you have a list of situations in which you have observed fear or anxiety, then changes should be made accordingly. For example, if he appears wary when visitors get too close to his cage, then any future guests will need to be instructed to remain a certain distance away until the parrot gets to know them better through repeated visits. It is important to socialize a parrot to new people, but this should be done gradually and with sensitivity, if the bird happens to have a shy or timid nature.
The owner must also learn to anticipate and avoid any new situation or object that is likely to scare the bird. It is predictable that many parrots will find at least many of the following to elicit fear:
¨ Anything that seems to appear out of nowhere, especially from above.
¨ Sticks, ropes, brooms, ladders, hoses
¨ Unbroken or extended eye contact
¨ A new fingernail or hair color, especially if this is a bright shade
¨ Large boxes
¨ Moving furniture
¨ Costumes or unusual clothing
¨ Bald heads
¨ Hats or strange headgear
¨ New over-head track lighting or large pictures recently hung on the wall
¨ Shaking out blankets, rugs or other large pieces of fabric
¨ Loud noises from construction equipment, remodeling activities or firework.
How to Make a Tube Collar by Shelly Lane
Here are instructions for making the collar that Gator wore for a couple of months after he self-mutilated.
My vet made the collar that Gator wore, and it was made out of an empty cardboard tube from a roll of cloth tape – the same tape that is used to wrap the collar. She also put a couple of layers of gauze under the tape to provide a little cushion. However, a couple of people on the Quaker mailing list have used a collar made of a foam tube (plumbers pipe insulation) that I think will work just as well or better than the cardboard tube.
The plumbers pipe insulation comes in a long tube – 5 or 6 feet long – and only costs a couple of dollars per tube. I am not sure what size to tell you to get – it comes in 3 sizes at our local home improvement store. I know the smallest size is too small, but I haven’t made collars out of the 2 larger sized tubes yet. It’s cheap enough that you can afford to experiment, though. I plan to make some collars out of both sizes to see what works best, but right now I don’t have a need to and I highly doubt that one of my guys will volunteer to model them for me. 😉
The tape used to cover the pipe insulation is a cloth tape. I found it at the drug store in the section where they have the athletic tapes and stuff. I’m sorry that I don’t know what this stuff is actually called.
The collar should be 3/4″ to 1″ in height. The plumbers pipe insulation already has a slit going up one side, and that is the “opening” of the collar. Wrap several layers of the tape around the collar – first I wrap each of the ends and then wrap the entire collar, covering the tape that I used to wrap the ends. Depending on the width of the tape, you may find it easier to wrap the collar if you take a long strip of tape and cut it in half length-wise so that it is half the width that it originally was.
After you are done wrapping, you should then make a little “tab” that sticks up above the top of the collar a little (and use a couple of strips of tape to hold that tab onto the collar really well). Make sure you turn over the end of the tab so that none of the sticky side is showing. This will be the “decoy” tape. Since it sticks up a little it is easier to chew on and hopefully the bird will chew on the tab rather than on the other parts of the collar. Replace the tab as needed. 😉
After you put the collar on the bird, you need to use a couple of pieces of tape to cover the opening of the collar so that the bird can’t take it off. If you have to take the collar off (to medicate or whatever), make sure you use fresh pieces of tape to close the collar when you put it back on – otherwise the bird may be able to get the collar off as the used tape loses its “stickiness”.
Judy Leach’s Vest for Parrots
By Judy Leach
A solution for preventing plucking that I have found to be very successful is a homemade “vest”. Pictured here is one of my pets, Quincy , modeling a vest that I had made for her. When she reached 6 years of age, she started into the homone changes of maturity and totally plucked her chest clean. She had never plucked before, and within a couple of weeks she didn’t have a feather on her chest. I made a vest for her from an old baby diaper like the one pictured on the right. Although she was perfectly capable of tearing it to pieces, she left it on for 3 months. After this time, I took it off of her, and all of her feathers had grown back. She is now over 12 years old, and has not plucked since. I have since recommended this “vest” to a number of pet owners with plucking birds, and it has successfully helped many plucking, and even self-mutilating, parrots to break the habit.
If you decide to make a vest like this one for your parrot, it should be the length from just above the breastbone to his vent. The first set of ties(1) should be tried around his neck. The second set (2) should go under his wings and tie around his back. The third set (3) go between his legs and tie over his tail. The “V” cut (4) should be cut out under the vent so he doesn’t soil it. By the way, the vest pictured is the same one that I used for Quincy . As you can see, she didn’t even put holes in it.
If you decide to make a vest like this one for your parrot, it should be the length from just above the breastbone to his vent. The first set of ties (1) should be tried around his neck. The second set (2) should go under his wings and tie around his back. The third set (3) go between his legs and tie over his tail. The “V” cut (4) should be cut out under the vent so he doesn’t soil it.
Written by: Beatriz Cazeneuve