Copyright Pamela Clark October 2001. All rights reserved. Parts or whole may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author. The article originally appeared in the Holistic Bird Newsletter at www.holisticbird.com. Revised August 2006.
Stress Reduction Methods for Companion Parrots
By Pamela Clark
If I had to put it bluntly, I’d say that keeping parrots as companions in captivity is similar to trying to pound a square peg through a round hole. The fact that they do as well as they do is testimony more to their adaptability than it is to our husbandry efforts. Still undomesticated, parrots evolved to fly miles every day, have unlimited social contacts with other flock members, forage for food of their own choosing, bathe in a manner and spot of their own choosing, remain active throughout the day shredding plant materials, and mate and raise their own young.
Instead, even in the most benevolent of homes, this same parrot remains for hours a day inside a cage, eats food of our choosing served at times convenient for us, is dependent for stimulation and activity upon us, is unable to breed and rear young, and receives limited social interaction.
All that said, however, I am not against keeping parrots as companions in captivity. That already is a “done deal,” as they say. Since keeping companion parrots is a reality that is unlikely to change, we must instead do so as consciously as possible, with a deep awareness of exactly what it is we are asking of them. Life in captivity always carries a measure of stress with it for our companion parrots, and the wise parrot owner both acknowledges this and works to implement whatever methods are possible to alleviate any stress to their parrots that results from the conditions of living in captivity.
David McCluggage, DVM writes in Holistic Care for Birds, “We know from practical experience and from scientific research that emotions affect the state of an animal’s health, whether the animal is a human being or a bird. The more intelligent an animal is, the keener its perception of danger and the greater its stress.” There is little doubt that many of the conditions in our homes create stress for our parrots. These include erratic feeding schedules, boring or non-nutritive food choices, the unpredictable behavior of children, placement of the cage in an “exposed” spot in the home, the temperature in the home, and many others.
Many parrot owners, so used to ignoring their own stress levels out of necessity in our jumbled and fast-paced world, often do not recognize signs of stress in their birds. Many of us tend to shrug off our own feelings of fear or emotional discomfort. Usually, we have been taught as children to do so. If this is the case, and we are not in touch with our own anxiety or feelings of stress, then we need to train ourselves to look for and honor signs of anxiety in our parrots, and take them seriously.
It is a valuable exercise to spend a period of two to three weeks, observing your parrot as if you were taking a video of his actions. In other words, 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.
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.
If a friend comes over who is wearing a hat that scares the bird, you will ask him to remove his hat. In other words, the owner must become a student of the young parrot’s body language and do whatever it takes to modify the environment or situations in order to insure greater comfort for him.
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
¨ Helium-filled balloons
¨ 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 fireworks
Since the bird will spend the majority of his time in his cage, the importance of correct placement can not be overstated. As indicated above, it should not be in any very busy traffic pattern, although it should remain in the living area.
For most parrots, it should not be located in front of a window, either. Unexpected things happen outside of windows, and raptors will stare at parrots through windows from the outside. If the cage is next to a window or sliding glass doorway, perhaps it can be shifted a little to either the left or the right so that at least half of the cage is against the wall. If the latter is not an option, than a light colored sheet can be used to cover about 1/3 of the cage and clamped in place so that the parrot has a place to go to retreat if feeling threatened or anxious.
In addition to considerate cage placement and protection from things known to frighten parrots, the following measures can reduce stress for captive parrots as well.
Once you have completed the initial steps to the practice of clicker training, you can teach your parrot many things, such as to retrieve a ball, climb a ladder, or push a cart. Clicker training can even be used to teach a parrot to play with toys, or to desensitize him to a new toy, since the sound of the clicker delivers immediate reinforcement. These short sessions will use up physical and emotional energy, which will relax him and create in him a feeling of success and accomplishment...feelings which have often been extinguished or never fully developed in hand-reared parrots.
This works just as well for parrots. Once you have the piece of music, watch for times when your parrot is resting and relaxed and put the music on to play. Also play it when you put him to bed at night. Eventually, he will be "patterned" to relax every time he hears this same music. You can then use it during times of high stress, such as before and after a trip to the vet, if you must have any workmen come into your home for repairs, or during the holidays when stress levels in homes are higher anyway.
If your parrot will not eat fresh vegetables and greens, leave his dish of seed or pellets in the cage for now, but also provide him twice a day with a chopped salad of fresh, raw foods, into which additional seed has been mixed. In time, once he has gotten used to the appearance of the fresh mix, he will begin to forage through that mix for the seed it contains. Once this begins to occur, the dish of seed can be removed from the cage. Initially, the fresh mix may contain 50% seed to prevent him from getting too hungry as he learns to also eat the fresh vegetables and other items this mix contains. As his acceptance grows, the amount of seed should be decreased to between 5% and 10%.
I have no argument with the value of a quality pellet, and believe that most parrots should enjoy them in their diet. However, pellets are devoid of certain classes of valuable nutrients, such as essential fatty acids and enzymes, and should not comprise the whole diet. Fresh greens, vegetables, seeds and nuts are excellent sources for these nutrients.
It is also important to make sure that a source for complete protein is provided in a form the parrot will consume. Pellets are a good source of protein. Cooked beans, legumes and grains can be served in combination and will provide a complete blend of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Or, small amounts of low-fat cheese, scrambled eggs, or well-cooked organic chicken or fish can be offered.
One way to do this is to develop a flock language. Say the same things to him at appropriate times. When you feed him, "Are you hungry?" When you give him water, "Do you want some fresh water?" When you leave, "Bye-bye...I'll be right back." The more you talk to him in context about predictable happenings, the more secure he will feel. If he hears a noise that startles him, label it for him and reassure him: "That was just the gardeners! Bad gardeners! But, you're okay."
· Rituals are created between owner and bird as a sort of "social duet" that forms over time. Bedtime rituals can be especially reassuring. Here, each night I make warm oatmeal and go around the room spoon feeding each bird in turn. Then, I extend to each their own special bedtime “good by” before covering their cage for the night. My Meyer's Parrot lies on his back in my hand while I scratch the back of his neck. Then I proclaim he’s the handsomest Meyer’s without feet I’ve ever seen, place him back on his perch, and cover him up. As I approach my Blue and Gold Macaw, I demand dramatically “Give me a kiss!” to which he responds by clasping a cage bar with his beak so I can deposit a kiss on it. He then gets a bedtime almond. My middle-aged male Yellow-naped Amazon receives simply a very respectful and loving “good night” from a distance. Each one receives a special bedtime salute, unique to them, and is sung to as I cover them. It doesn't matter what type of ritual you develop, just that it's the same every time. This serves to create a great sense of safety in parrots.
· Morning rituals are also important. A parrot should be greeted each morning upon being uncovered, or awakened, as if he is a special and important member of the family. This greeting takes only a minute or two. Never should the morning greeting be merely perfunctory. If you carefully observe the people you know who are really great with parrots, you will see that one reason for their ability has to do with the fact that they focus solely on the bird, appreciating every quality as they speak softly to them. Slow down, really look at your bird as if the rest of the world didn’t exist and greet him, letting him know that on this new day, you find him exceptional and valuable.
· Include him in as many social family activities as possible, within the above guidelines of safety. Parrots are social creatures, and being part of social activities helps to create a greater sense of safety. You might use a tabletop perch or a basket and bring him to the table with you during mealtimes. When you take a shower or get ready in the morning, you can bring him into the bathroom on a portable perch. Just being in there while you dress will give him some satisfaction because he will instinctively understand that you are "preening" and he is being included.
· Closely guard your own emotions about him and his problems. I can't write enough about the empathic nature of parrots. Often, when a parrot has problems with chronic stress, it is because the human with whom he lives does not know how to alleviate his own stress. Parrots in general, but especially African Greys, know how we feel.
They know when we are worried. If, when we interact with them, we allow ourselves to think about problems and our own stressors instead of focusing on them, the bird will experience this as a "danger" signal. Parrots in the wild watch each other closely for any sign that danger is near. So in tune are they with each other, that an entire flock can turn direction "on a dime" when flying. Similarly, they watch us for signs of danger.
Many clients will say to
me, “Oh…but I’m not acting stressed!” However, in the words of
Gretel Ehrlich in Intimate Nature: the Bond between Woman and Animals:
Thus, since they are so adept at reading “our involuntary tics and scents,” our own relationships with them, and their sense of safety will benefit greatly if we can leave our worries and fears behind when interacting with them. If you must worry…worry when away from the parrot. When in his presence and interacting with him, banish those thoughts and focus on his positive qualities.
The majority of parrots reared for sale by breeders or pet stores are weaned too early, in addition to being deprived of the fledging experience. Early weaning helps to insure an early sale, which maximizes profits. In order to accomplish this, the hand-feeder eliminates feedings according to an arbitrary schedule that will insure that the young parrot is weaned as early as possible. The huge problem with this practice is that hunger and anxiety become closely linked in the minds of baby parrots.
In the wild, no adult parrot wants a chick to be calling for food because this attracts the attention of predators. Babies are fed constantly, rarely ever wanting for food for long. Further, as more breeders allow their pairs to raise their young through weaning and fledging, observations accumulate that prove what we long suspected… that adult parrots will continue to feed their chicks even after they are weaned, solely for the purpose of providing reassurance or nurturing if the chick encounters a frightening experience as it becomes more independent. The chick not only does not experience hunger, but it receives feedings even when it only needs to be nurtured or reassured.
Contrast this reality with the common rearing practice of eliminating feedings according to a schedule, which can leave a parrot chick incredibly hungry for hours at a time, as he learns to manipulate food in order to feed himself. Further, to compound the anxiety caused by the hunger that he instinctively understands to be unnatural, he also receives no feedings simply for the purpose of reassurance as he meets the challenges of life in a pet store or new home. Thus, hunger and anxiety become inextricably and forever linked in the mind of the parrot.
This is why so many adult parrots do not eat well when feeling anxious. In more consulting cases than I care to count, close questioning reveals a pattern of eating that results in a hungry bird. An anxious young parrot will eat enough to keep himself alive and maintain his weight, but will not eat enough to reach satiety, the point that usually brings a greater sense of relaxation. In some cases, a young bird weaned through deprivation weaning techniques will become food independent, but will have a permanent behavioral disability as a result.
Whenever circumstances cause anxiety for such a bird, he eats less than normal. This results in an edge of hunger, which causes more anxiety, which results in poorer eating habits. This is one reason why anxiety in parrots is so difficult to overcome and the key can simply be to feed them a supplemental meal by spoon during more stressful times. Such feeding not only results in a full crop of warm food, which results in a decrease of anxiety and greater relaxation, but triggers on an instinctive level a feeling of being nurtured and safe.
Owners of any anxious bird should get into the practice of looking to see if the parrot’s crop is empty at different times of the day. This is quite easy to tell. With an African Grey, look at the line of the neck as it descends downward and meets the chest. If this is a smooth line, then the crop is full enough. If there is an indentation where the neck meets the spot where the chest begins to swell outward, and this indentation is there most of the time in this anxious bird, the implementation of supplemental feeding should be considered. Often, when fed a little warm food, anxiety diminishes to the point where the bird will eat more on his own. Thus, anxiety and stress can be reduced or eliminated simply by feeding warm, mushy foods once or twice a day.
A feeding spoon can easily be made by dipping a plastic spoon into a small pan of boiling water until the plastic is soft enough that the sides can be bent upward. Warm cooked oatmeal is a real favorite. It’s okay to add a small amount of pure maple syrup and a little low-fat milk. While parrots are said to be lactose intolerant, this amount will do no harm and seems to be much enjoyed…thereby providing incentive to the parrot initially reluctant to enjoy this. Other foods that can be used are Vitamin A baby foods, such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, and carrots, or other cooked cereals. (Baby food cereals should not be used because of the iron content.)
Make sure to cool the mixture to between 108 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. A cooking thermometer (a metal probe with a digital or dial read-out at the top) must always be used to insure that the delicate tissues of the mouth and crop are not burned. African birds tend to be rather fussy about food temperature, and if it drops below 105 degrees, they may be less interested. Thus, when trying to teach a bird to accept this practice, temperature may be critical.
It can take real patience and persistence on the part of the owner to teach a previously weaned bird to enjoy this. However, it’s worth the work. The value of this practice with captive parrots who are experiencing any difficult circumstances can not be underestimated. It triggers a bird to re-experience the comforting feelings it had as a baby in a manner that nothing else can. If the bird is fed just before bed, it will insure that he goes to bed with a crop full of warm nutritious food, which can in turn encourage more relaxing sleep.
If your young parrot will not eat pellets, consider ordering some Harrison's Hand Feeding Formula and spoon feeding this either by itself, or mixed with the oatmeal, or some Scenic Diet Hand Weaning Pellets, which are soaked and fed by hand. This can be invaluable for birds who do not eat well on their own and will not eat pellets. This is an exceptionally high quality formula preparation and can help to heal any nutritional deficiencies that exist in parrots who eat poorly or who have previously eaten a poor diet. Provision of this formula should be on a temporary basis, served once a day until the bird has reached the point where it is eating a nutritious diet with eagerness, and shows no reduction of food intake in reaction to stress.
I have two female Greys here, both of whom I raised. I often use them as an example of how greatly parrots can differ in their genetic make-up. They are from the same parents and were the only two chicks in the clutch. They are both female, by DNA testing. They hatched on the same day. They spent the same number of days with the parents (four weeks), and were subsequently fed, fledged, weaned and raised exactly the same. Marko is the sassiest, most brazen and assertive female Grey I have ever encountered. Her idea of fun is to fly over to the pot rack above the stove when I'm working in the kitchen and throw the pots and pans down at me. She laughs as she does so. If she's not able to do that, she climbs inside a pot and amuses herself by talking what I call "echo talk."
Her sister, Chloe, is a stressed out, anxiety-filled bird, who is much less active. The only factor that can account for their different personalities is genetics. I noticed at one point that Chloe, although not losing weight, often looked as if her crop were empty. In addition, I noticed that her plumage did not look as good as Marko's does, even though they are fed exactly the same. I began to feed Chloe Harrison's Hand Feeding Formula once a day, and it has made a significant difference. She is calmer and her feathers look much better. I intend for this to be a temporary intervention only. We certainly do not want to encourage dependence in parrots. We want them to eat independently. However, at certain times, with certain individuals, this is a very helpful practice.
Then, begin to take him up there during the day at some point and do the same thing. Maybe at those times when you feel yourself like you could use a 15-minute break. Go up there and take him with you, again putting him in the cage for a treat, or even on top of the cage. Play the music. Over time, this will pattern him to see this room and his sleeping cage as a little "oasis." Then, when life is stressful and lots is going on and you see him start to look a little tense, you can take him up there for a short siesta...just an hour or two in the middle of the day. And, again, play the music for him. That way, during the holidays or other really busy times, he will have a respite.
In cases like this, do consult with your veterinarian while you observe the bird. If it is determined that the feather is not going to stop bleeding, or there is concern that it might begin bleeding again, and a veterinary visit is necessary, then remain calm and reassure your bird during the trip to the vet. Many owners make such an experience more stressful for the bird because of their own fear.
I live in a climate that reaches 115 degrees on the hottest days of summer and extends down to 22 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. However, I can usually find a way to use my outdoor aviaries for at least a part of most days. Today was quite warm, but my Blue and Gold Macaw had a wonderful time outdoors from 7:00 am until noon, when the temperature had reached 90 degrees and it was time for him to come in.
Simply put, there is no substitute for fresh air and real sunshine. Parrots evolved to live outdoors. Even we, as thoroughly domesticated humans, can feel the difference made by time spent outdoors. If I sit in front of the computer all day or even stay indoors, I accumulate some tension. However, an hour outdoors does wonders for me. Parrots are no different. I have several outdoor aviaries and I don't know what I would do without them. My birds come inside from a period outdoors so much more relaxed and happy. I also think it benefits them greatly to get a respite from human "vibes."
¨ Food skewers made by Expandable Habitats, also available from www.birdsafe.com.
¨ Fun Rings in all three sizes (4", 5" and 7") from Fowl Play Company (www.fowl-play.com).
¨ Cooked whole artichokes, whole cooked sweet potatoes, whole pomegranates, large leafy greens, fruit in halves, whole carrots with the tops on, big chunks of corn on the cob, etc. - all for skewering.
The food skewers can be used to make either a new toy each day, using the toy making parts or a true food skewer for tearing apart. The Fun Rings can be used in the same manner. You can put a frozen bagel on one in the morning and hang it in the cage before leaving for work. The largest Fun Ring will accommodate a whole roll of white, unscented toilet paper for shredding. Toy parts can also be strung on these. Get creative. Give him something new to look forward to each day to tear apart. Again, this will help him to learn to focus, but will use up some of that energy that might otherwise go into anxiety.
The usual cautions pertain, however. It can be difficult to predict what will and will not frighten a parrot. If any of the above ideas does scare him, then hang it outside the cage the first few times so that he can simply get used to looking at it. Don't worry about the waste...it will be worth it in the long run.
The vast majority of behavior problems are the result of poor environment and diet. Following the suggestions above will go a long way toward the prevention of problems with your companion parrot, and will serve to help alleviate any stress-related problems that may already exist. Our companion parrots deserve our compassion. We do our best by them when we care for them in a manner that takes into consideration the difficulty of the task we ask of them…to join us in our world, learn our language, eat our food, amuse us, comfort us, and allow us to clutch and hold onto a measure of their beauty and wildishness.
Biography for Pamela Clark
Pamela Clark is a well-known author, speaker and certified parrot behavior consultant. Her knowledge extends to a wide range of parrot species, and has been gained through experiences as diverse as breeding to rescue and rehabilitation.
Pam’s approach when dealing with behavior problems is two-fold. She seeks to provide increased environmental enrichment and excellent nutrition, while using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis to resolve behavior problems. She evaluates each aspect of the parrot’s existence, including nutrition, environment, and social relationships, recommending improvements using the most positive, least intrusive methods to insure improvement. Pam has also trained parrots in behaviors as complex as that of free flight outdoors.
Pam lives in Salem, Oregon with a mixed flock of 10 companion parrots, one dog and two cats. In addition to her behavior consulting, writing and lecturing, she works as a veterinary technician for an avian specialist. Her articles have appeared in the Companion Parrot Quarterly, Bird Talk magazine, Birds USA, Parrots magazine, and the Holistic Bird Newsletter, and have been translated into several foreign languages.