Avian Expert Articles

Stress Reduction for Companion Parrots

AfricanGreyTo put it bluntly, keeping companion parrots is similar to trying to pound a square peg into 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. Even in the most benevolent of homes, this same parrot remains for hours a day in 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 pets. That already is a “done deal,” as they say. Since the reality of keeping companion parrots 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 for our companion parrots. The wise parrot owner both acknowledges this and works to alleviate as much stress as possible that results from the conditions of living in captivity.

Veterinarian David McCluggage 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 and other pets, 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. We try to shrug off our own feelings of fear or emotional discomfort, as many of us have been taught to do since childhood. If we are not in touch with our own anxiety or feelings of stress, then we need to train ourselves to look for and honor the signs of anxiety in our parrots. We need to take them seriously.

Careful Observation of Your Parrot

It is a valuable exercise to spend 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 “wide-eyed.” Anxiety in African grey parrots 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 destruction or phobias.

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, softly 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 future guests should be instructed to remain a certain distance away until the parrot gets to know them better. Socializing a parrot to new people is important, but if he is shy or timid, this should be done gradually and with sensitivity.

If his cage is near a stairway or a doorway where people startle him as they appear out of nowhere, then his cage should be moved to a quieter location in the same room. If such a placement is not possible, then family members will need to learn to verbally announce their presence prior to entering the room. In that way, he won’t be frightened by people’s abrupt appearance.

If a friend visits wearing a hat that scares the bird, you will ask him to remove the hat. In other words, the owner must become a student of the parrot’s body language and do what he/she can to modify the environment or situations in order to insure greater comfort for him.

Owners should also learn to anticipate problems and avoid any new situations or objects that are 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

Cage Placement

Since pet birds spend most of their time in the cage, the importance of correct placement cannot 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, cages should not be placed in front of a window, either. Unexpected things happen outside of windows. If the cage is next to a window or sliding glass doorway, it should be shifted a little to the left or right so that at least half of the cage is against a solid wall. If this is not an option, than a light colored sheet can be used to cover 1/3 of the cage back to front. This provides a hiding place, so parrots have a to retreat to if feeling threatened or anxious.

Clicker Training

Spend some time daily actively teaching your parrot something, as this will also help reduce his anxiety. Clicker training is an excellent for this. It’s fun for both owner and parrot, and will help to teach him to focus his attention. Often, birds that startle easily have difficulty focusing clearly on tasks for very long, as they are constantly distracted by their own anxiety and perceived need to be watchful at all times. Clickers can be ordered from www.clickertraining.com. This website also provides basic information about clicker training and how to begin.

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 expend 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.

Patterning to Music

Pattern him to some piece of soothing music. (I use Stephen Halpern’s Spectrum Suite for this). This idea is based upon techniques for self-hypnosis and meditation in humans. Simply described, if I meditate for 20 minutes every day to the same piece of soothing music, then after a few months all I will need to do is to hear the music to experience again the feelings of relaxation and peacefulness usually felt during and after meditation.

This works just as well for parrots. Once you choose the 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.

The Importance of Good Nutrition

A poor diet will result in generalized stress. Arguments abound about proper nutrition for parrots, but it is generally accepted that parrots thrive best on a wide variety of healthy foods, and that no one food (such as a seed mix or formulated diet or “pellet”) should comprise the entire diet. Improving the diet is essential to reducing stress in many cases where the bird has often developed a deficiency of essential fatty acids and may also not be getting enough high quality complete protein. Increase the amount of fresh, raw foods he gets to 30% of the diet or more. The darker the color of the vegetable or fruit, the more nutritional value it contains.

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, with additional seeds mixed in. Over time, he will become accustomed to the appearance of the fresh mix, and he will begin to forage through that mixture 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 10 to 15%.

I have no argument with the value of a quality formulated diet, and I believe that they are an important component of a nutritious diet. However, formulated diets should not comprise the entire diet, as they are devoid of certain classes of valuable nutrients such as essential fatty acids and enzymes. Fresh greens, vegetables, seeds and nuts are excellent sources for these nutrients.

Make sure that a source for complete protein is provided in a form the parrot will consume. Formulated diets 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.

In cases where a parrot exhibits chronic stress, it may also be beneficial to obtain digestive enzymes and sprinkle these on his food. A good product sold for use with birds is Prozymes™. This is available from a variety of mail-order sources. Some parrots simply do not absorb nutrients from their diets as well as others do, and this can lead to increased nervousness and poor feather quality. Enzymes are extremely important for good emotional and physical health, and the provision of such a supplement can increase nutrient absorption, resulting in better all around health.

Many African greys, Senegals and Jardine’s parrots who either damage feathers or exhibit chronic stress can be provided with an essential fatty acid oil supplement once or twice a day. You can give him between three and six drops twice a day. Adequate essential fatty acids are not only necessary for good plumage, but are needed for optimal brain function. Each nerve cell in the brain is covered with a myelin sheath that is composed of essential fatty acids. It’s possible that some birds have a higher need than others do for these nutrients. This is especially true of African greys, who eat the fruits of the oil palm in the wild, which are especially high in essential fatty acids. Senegals and Jardine’s parrots also enjoy food sources in the wild, which are similarly high in fat. This type of supplement can be found in the health food store refrigerator section. It can be placed on a small square of bread or other absorbent food.

Soothing Rituals

Create rituals and predictability in every way possible. Parrots love routines because they appear to enjoy being able to anticipate 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 that has learned to feel anxiety, any methods that create predictability will be helpful.

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. Every night I extend to each his/her own special bedtime goodbye 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 them 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, but never should the morning greeting be merely perfunctory. If you carefully observe people who are really great with parrots, you will note 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 let him know that on this new day, you find him exceptional and valuable.

Include your parrot in as many social family activities as possible, within the guidelines of safety. Parrots are social creatures, and being part of the activity helps to create a greater sense of safety. You might use a tabletop perch or a basket and bring him to the table 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.

Problems with Empathy

Closely guard your own emotions about your parrot and his problems. I can’t write enough about the empathic nature of psittacine birds. When a parrot has problems with chronic stress, it is often because his human does not know how to alleviate his own stress. Parrots (especially greys) know how we feel, and when we are worried. If, when we interact with them, we allow ourselves to think about our own stressors instead of focusing on them, the bird will likely experience this as a danger signal. Parrots in the wild watch each other closely for any sign that danger is near. They are so in tuned with each other that an entire flock can instantly change direction when flying. Similarly, they watch us for signs of danger.

Many clients will say, “Oh … but I’m not acting stressed!” However, in the words of Gretel Ehrlich in Intimate Nature: the Bond between Woman and Animals: “Animals hold us to what is present, to who we are at the time. What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we are finally ourselves.” Since they are so adept at reading “our involuntary tics and scents,” our relationship with them, and their sense of safety will benefit greatly if we can leave our worries behind when interacting with them. If you must worry, do so when away from the parrot. When in his presence and interacting with him, banish those thoughts and focus on his positive qualities.

Train yourself to get into the habit of catching your parrot in the act of being good. If he eats food, praise him. If he drinks water, praise him. If he preens or plays with a toy, praise him. If this type of ambient positive attention is provided consistently, the parrot will receive the consistent feedback that he needs regarding what is expected of him to be successful in your home and this too will allow him to relax a little more.

Hunger = Anxiety = Stress

One of the most powerful tools for reducing stress in a young parrot is to feed him warm, soft, nutritious food from a spoon at least once every day. Most hand-reared parrots were never spoon fed when young, since the practice of using a syringe is so popular, but they can learn to enjoy this if the owner is willing to be persistent about offering it on a nightly basis.

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 elicits 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, apparently to provide 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 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.

I believe 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 many 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 can be so difficult to overcome in parrots, and the key can be to simply feed them a supplemental meal by spoon. Such feeding not only results in a full crop of warm food, which results in a decrease of anxiety and greater relaxation, but it appears to trigger 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 nicely full. If there is an indentation where the neck meets the spot where the chest begins to swell outward, and this indentation is present most of the time in this anxious bird, the implementation of supplemental feeding should be considered. When fed a little warm food, often anxiety will diminish 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 high 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.)

Be sure to cool the mixture to 108-110 degrees Fahrenheit. A candy thermometer should 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, but it’s well worth the work. The value of this practice with captive parrots that are experiencing any difficult circumstances cannot be underestimated. It triggers a young parrot 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 formulated diets (i.e., “pellets”), consider ordering some Harrison’s Hand Feeding Formula and spoon-feeding this either by itself, or mixed with oatmeal. This can be invaluable for birds that 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 of parrots that have not been eating well, or have been on insufficient diets. This formula should be offered 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.

Sleep Cages & Relaxation Periods

Think about creating a separate sleeping cage in a spare room. This cage need not be very big, and often a collapsible travel cage suffices nicely. It needs only one perch and two small dishes. It should be covered at night on at least three sides. Put it in a room where there is either a comfortable chair for you. Before you put him to bed, feed the warm food by spoon, and then put him in his sleeping cage but leave the door open. Give him a small amount (one tablespoon) of a good quality seed mix, or other treat that he really likes. You can read a book or just visit quietly with him. In other words, the idea is to create a quiet, reassuring interlude for the two of you. Put on the Spectrum Suite CD. It doesn’t matter exactly what you do… just that it’s a short period during which you both relax together in a pleasant environment.

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. Take him up there 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. Again, play the music for him. That way, during the holidays or other really busy times, he will have a respite.

Falling & Broken Blood Feathers

A stressed or anxious parrot may startle easily and will often break incoming blood feathers when he falls. These should not be pulled unless it is absolutely necessary to stop the bleeding. A broken blood feather will usually stop bleeding on its own within 15 minutes. If it doesn’t, you can gently restrain the bird and apply pressure right at the point where the feather emerges from the follicle. Do not use Kwik Stop™, or any other product sold for the purpose of stopping bleeding. This product is not designed to be used on skin or wounds. It should only be used on bleeding toenails or chipped and bleeding beaks. If you can’t get the bleeding stopped after 15 minutes of pressure, you should call your avian veterinarian.

It is best to avoid having the feather pulled because this often results in increased anxiety. Many novice parrot owners see blood from a broken feather and panic, rushing the bird to the vet’s office to have the feather pulled. The stress and fear manifested by the frightened owner, as well as the actual veterinary procedure (if not performed with sensitivity), can result in a dramatic increase in anxiety levels for the bird. Thus, if you do have to make such a trip to the vet for a broken feather, remain calm and reassure your bird.

If the bleeding stops and you are able to avoid a trip to the vet’s office, watch the feather closely for a day or so to make sure it doesn’t begin bleeding again. In some cases, the broken feather will be left sticking out at an odd angle, so that the bird bangs it as he moves around. However, parrots have taken care of this sort of problem by themselves for eons, and in most cases, either the bird will chew it off himself, or you can wait a couple of days and cut it back yourself – just enough so it doesn’t drag. By that time, the blood supply to the feather will have begun to recede back up into the body.

Outside Aviaries

Think about providing an outdoor aviary for the parrot. Parrot owners often initially rejected this idea, believing that their weather does not permit the use of an aviary. However, this is rarely the case. A good friend in Ohio installed a beautiful hexagonal aviary for the daytime use of her six parrots. While it’s true it can’t be used during much of the winter, but she has never regretted the purchase, so great are the benefits.

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, but 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”.

Projects & Busy Work

Give a parrot plenty of stuff to tear up and destroy. He should have a new project every day to alleviate boredom and use up some of that energy. Rotating toys is great, but what parrots really need is something new to destroy every day. I usually give my clients a shopping list as follows (find these at retailers of parrot toys):

  • Food skewers for parrots
  • Fun Rings for parrots in all three sizes (4″, 5″ and 7″)
  • A vast array of parrot toy making parts
  • 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.

Food skewers can be used to make a new destructible toy each day, using toy making parts with or without a chunk of food 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, so 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 also use up some of that energy that might otherwise get channeled 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 scare him, then hang it low on the outside of 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.

Holistic Assistance

Lastly, consider trying Bach Flower Remedies and standard homeopathic remedies, under informed guidance. A few homeopathic remedies that can help nervous, anxious and fearful birds include Chamomilla, Hypericum, Ignatia, Lycopodium, Pulsatilla, and Silica. However, none of these remedies should be used without the counsel of someone who regularly uses them with parrots. Veterinarians David McCluggage in Colorado (author of Holistic Care for Birds) and Joel Murphy in Florida (author of several books), do telephone consultations. Used properly, these types of remedies are gentle, have no side effects, and can be exceptionally effective in such cases.

Problem Behaviors, Environments & Diet

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 wildness.

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