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Behavioural Problems in Companion parrots
by Greg Glendell
Published as “Who’s a Naughty Parrot then?” in Veterinary Times (UK) 18th Feb 2008.

In this article Greg Glendell looks at the most common behavioural problems seen in companion parrots.  Some of the apparent causes of these problems are discussed, as well as the ease with which animals with complex needs can be acquired.  The use of applied behaviour analysis in behaviour modification is also discussed.   

Introduction and general issues. 
The sight of a badly self-plucked parrot in the surgery with its owner hoping for some ‘cure’ is all too frequent.  Sometimes the bird has removed 90% of its own feathers and may even be self-mutilating its flesh.  We might ask why such a sight is so common in parrot-like birds.  It is of course as easy to acquire these ‘exotic’ animals as it is to acquire a hamster, a rat or a goldfish.  Buyers are simply required to be over 16 years old.  Most of the needs of species such as small domesticated rodents can be met while these animals are kept as pets and the provision of these needs is not particularly demanding for the animals’ keeper.  Nor are these animals particularly long-lived.  Conversely, the medium-sized and larger parrots have complex needs and a lifespan similar to humans (Low 1992).  However, it is as easy to acquire a parrot as it is any other commonly-available (but domesticated) species and this ease of acquisition bears no relationship to the knowledge required in order to keep the bird well.  This is perhaps at the heart of the matter when we look at the quality of care many parrots receive as companion animals. 

While the condition of the plumage of wild parrots varies and these birds may damage each others’ feathers there are no incidents of self-harming in wild parrots; the behaviour is confined to captive birds.  Here, the condition seems more common in lone (caged) companion birds as opposed to aviary birds which have the company of their own kind.  Since there may well be dietary and medical issues which contribute to self-harming in parrots, these aspects should always be investigated when presented with a bird in this condition.  However, self-harming always includes a behavioural component since the bird is making a voluntary decision to damage its own body, so this aspect needs to be examined as well. 

We know that where an animal’s behavioural needs are frustrated, then the animal is vulnerable to behavioural problems.  Engebretson (2006) writes: “The freedom to express normal behaviour and the freedom from distress appear to be inextricably linked in captive parrots and other birds kept as pets.”  While we do not have many detailed studies of the behavioural ecology of many species of wild parrots, we do know that they are highly social animals which typically spend most of the day-time engaged in foraging for a range of foods, flying, and mutual preening (Birchall 1990).  

Captive parrots, in addition to being unable to perform many of their normal, natural daily behaviours, are also subjected to a range of other common management practices within the bird-keeping world which would seem likely to exacerbate behavioural frustrations.  These include parental deprivation (hand-rearing), being confined to small cages for most of the time, deprived of flight through wing-clipping and kept in solitude.  It is worth reviewing how captive parrots are produced [for the pet trade] and kept at present. 

Hand-rearing.
While some aviculturists allow some of their breeding pairs to raise their own young, many parrots are hand-reared.   Even before the ending of the commercial importation of wild-caught birds into the European Union in 2007, most captive-bred parrots destined for the pet trade were being hand-reared.  The hand-rearing process may start with removal of eggs; these being incubated artificially.  The reasons for hand-rearing are essentially commercial.  Where eggs are removed from a laying female, she is stimulated to re-lay her ‘lost’ clutch, so more eggs can be had from her each year than is natural.  As a result of being fed by humans as neonates, hand-reared parrots exhibit submissive behaviours to humans.  This trait continues, at least until the birds reach maturity at 2 to 5 years old (depending on the species).  The submissive behaviours ensure the birds are tractable and can be handled by potential buyers and ‘cuddle-tame’ parrots sell much quicker in the pet shops than those which are not so tame. 

At sexual maturity, many hand-reared parrots tend to show sexual imprinting to humans.  The process of hand-rearing has adverse effects on the behaviour of African grey parrots when they mature (Schmid, Doherr and Steiger 2005).  Indeed, many behavioural problems do not manifest until the birds become young adults.  Typically these problems include over-bonding to one member of the household and aggressive biting of anyone who approaches the bird’s favoured person.  The bird’s normal contact calls often escalate into distress calls whenever the favoured person leaves the room, so the bird becomes a ‘screamer’ or noise nuisance.  These sexually imprinted birds experience behavioural frustrations with which they fail to cope.  These birds are then vulnerable to a range of unwanted behaviours, the most common being stereotypies and self-harming of feathers; these tend to manifest when the birds are no longer immature.  So the hand-rearing, or what we might more accurately call parental deprivation, sets in place a behavioural time-bomb with a 2 to 5 year delay in behavioural problems.  Indeed, according to Schmid, et al. the maladaptive behaviours of hand-reared birds appears to be largely in proportion to the amount of parental deprivation they have experienced.  Where birds are part-parent raised (not removed from the nest until at least 8 weeks old) they suffer fewer behavioural problems as adults than those which have been solely hand-reared from the day of hatching.  In addition to adverse behavioural issues caused by hand-rearing, there can be adverse physical effects including osteodystrophy (Harcourt-Brown, 2003, 2004). 

Flight deprivation
Birds use their ability to fly in order to escape from many fearful situations.  While this escape response is the bird’s most essential predator-avoidance mechanism, it is also used to avoid a range of other adverse encounters.  However, parrots, even immature birds are often subjected to wing-clipping.  Clipped birds will still execute this fear-induced escape-by-flight behaviour since, being a reflex action, they have little control of how it is initiated.  Such birds are then at risk of crash-landing and injuring themselves.  So, an already fearful situation is exacerbated by the bird’s often painful crash-landings.  Such events would not be repeated in a wild bird, since a flightless wild bird would soon be dead.  These events can trigger so-called ‘phobic’ behaviours in parrots.  Phobic birds display an apparently exaggerated fear in response to ‘harmless’ situations (Luescher, 2006).  In the author’s experience, many phobic birds are flight impaired; due either to being wing-clipped or self-mutilation.  Since these birds cannot employ their escape reaction their ‘phobia’ is likely to be reinforced each time they try to avoid some fearful event.  If they do not ‘escape’ the problem because they cannot, and also hurt themselves when crash-landing, then pain and fear become more frequent and ‘unavoidable’ realities for them.  Where phobic birds have flight restored (by imping or removal of feather stumps to initiate feather re-growth) their confidence improves and their fearful reactions tend to subside.  As clipped birds risk breaking their growing blood feathers, imping also offers good protection while these feathers grow back.  Non-wing clipped birds can of course easily be taught several requests to fly to and from their keepers and this obviates the ‘need’ for wing-clipping. 

Over-use of the cage.
Were dogs and cats to be confined to small cages and only let out for an hour or two each day we would not be surprised to see more incidences of ‘behavioural’ problems in these animals.  Captive birds are, by default often confined to cages for most of their lives.  For parrots, over-use of small cages which may also be bereft of environmental stimulation commonly leads to stereotypical behaviours, particularly route-tracing and self-plucking (Meehan, Garner and Mench 2003).  However, where birds have many hours each day out of their cages and are provided with a stimulating environment which includes facilities to forage for some foods they are far less likely to suffer behavioural problems.  Without direct, physical contact with their keepers or other birds, the caged bird is, essentially in solitary confinement. 

While captive parrots are commonly subjected to some or all of the above conditions (conditions which are inimical to their behavioural needs) they have a further common problem.  This relates to how their keepers interact with them when they are out of the cage. 

Relationship with owner and applied behaviour analysis
Where the bird’s keeper can be persuaded to provide the bird with a more stimulating general environment which includes several hours out of the cage each day, facilities for foraging for some food, flying opportunities and the company of other parrot-like birds, then the bird’s general behavioural frustrations will be greatly reduced.  However, some unwanted behaviours such as biting and self-plucking may still occur in some birds.  Changing these behaviours will require a more focussed, scientific approach from the bird’s keeper.  In the author’s view, the most effective means of reducing and even eliminating unwanted behaviours is to use methods grounded in applied behaviour analysis (ABA).  The use of ABA for modifying some parrot behaviours has been advocated for some years by Dr Susan Friedman (see www.thegabrielfoundation.com ) in the USA.  The efficacy and suitability of ABA lies in its use of positive reinforcement (rewards) for desired behaviours while eschewing any aversive interactions with birds such as punishment, admonishment or negative reinforcement.  The rewards used are determined essentially, by the particular bird.  Some respond very well to food treats, other will ‘work’ for a head-scratch or access to a favourite toy (Glendell 2007).  Where unwanted behaviours occur, a non-antagonistic approach is maintained.  Birds are not reprimanded or ‘challenged’ for any unwanted behaviour.  The concept of ‘dominating’ a bird and forcing it to do certain actions and be 100% compliant is rejected, largely on welfare grounds.  As highly social animals without a simple order of ‘dominance’ found in some species of mammals, a parrot’s need for companionship and company can be used to ask it to refrain from unwanted behaviours.  So, instead of returning a ‘bad’ bird to its cage in response to some unwanted behaviour, the keeper calmly removes themselves from the company of the bird for a few minutes by walking out of the room.  Once a bird understands the connection between an unwanted behaviour and its favoured person leaving it, it has an incentive to cease the behaviour.

In order to make real progress in the care of companion parrots, many ‘traditional’ avicultural practices need to be dispensed with.  A cessation of hand-rearing -simply letting parrots raise their own progeny- will certainly help.  Training birds to accept some simple flight requests from their keepers removes the ‘need’ for wing-clipping and most birds learn these requests within a few days.  Ensuring owners are fully aware of the need for birds to be out of their cages for many hours each day is also necessary.  Of course all of this first requires people to change their behaviour, and that is always the really difficult task for vets and behaviourists alike. 

Copyright; G Glendell 2008. 

For References, see original text in Veterinary Times 18th Feb 2008.

SHOULD MY PARROT’S WINGS BE CLIPPED?
by Greg Glendell
(Originally published in Parrots magazine, UK, 2008)

Many parrots still have their wings clipped.  In this article, Greg Glendell explains why clipping is not necessary and may even cause more problems than it can solve. 

The flying parrot!  It sometimes comes as a surprise to bird keepers (who may only know parrots in captivity) that most wild parrots are ace-aeronauts.  And they have to be, for one very simple reason: to escape being caught by an equally skilled hawk intent on catching a parrot for food.  Wild parrots who escape such attacks at high speed and can fly with precision in a tightly packed flock are the ones who survive to live another day.  

So what has this to do with the pet bird in your home?   Well, we are always reminding ourselves that parrots are not really domesticated birds, but remain essentially the same as those in the wild; this is very true!  Throughout their long history of evolution, parrots have refined their flying abilities for the sake of sheer survival.  Wild parrots typically fly at 35 to 45 mph and can keep this up for several hours when required.  The parrot in the home has retained all the instinctive behaviours found in a wild bird vulnerable to attack from predators.  In fact the bird’s whole body, behaviour and lifestyle are adapted for flight.  Due to this evolutionary history, flight is also vital to a parrot’s health and well-being even when it is in captivity.  A flying creature cannot get effective aerobic exercise merely by climbing around, no more than a dog can get effective exercise unless it is able to run around each day.  Pet parrots which do have regular daily exercise by flying are also strong, fit and healthy birds.  Flight is as vital for a bird as running is for dogs or horses. 

How parrots learn to fly.  
When baby parrots fledge and leave the nest, they have a strong natural urge to fly, though they don’t have the skills for precision flight; these skills can only be acquired by experience.  All birds (both wild ones and pet birds) are clumsy for a while during this stage.  Just like a human toddler learning to walk instead of crawl, the birds will have accidents. They may crash-land and misjudge distances when landing.  Birds in captivity have two extra problems to overcome when learning to fly.  First, there is the problem of taking off in the still ‘dead’ air of a room.  In the wild, the bird would normally experience the wind and turn instinctively into this to take off and land more easily.  Second, a lack of space.  Learning to fly within the confines of a room is both difficult and unnatural.  The bird has insufficient space to gain any speed before it then has to find somewhere to land.  In the wild, it might fly a great distance before finding a suitable place to land, then prepare itself as it approaches the perch.  Fledgling parrots tend to follow their parents on early flights, and rely on them to show them where to land.  With this in mind, as the bird’s main carer, you should replicate this guidance by showing your bird which places you would like him to use as perches to land on, but do this before the bird is asked to fly to these places.  So, just use the ‘Step up’ and ‘Step down’ requests to get your bird used to a range of places in the room(s) he has access to.  This might include the backs of chairs, a table, settee, window-ledges etc.  Pet birds also need to be taught about the problems of large-pane windows.  It’s best to make these invisible barriers more obvious to the bird by hanging net curtains at them or sticking something on the window such as diagonal strips of dark masking/duct tape (birds may try to perch on horizontally arranged tape).  Once the bird is familiar with the window, the tape can be removed. 

At first, young birds are not aware of the extent of their own wingspan and an Amazon or African grey, with a wingspan of about 28 inches (75cms) may collide with a door post as it tries to fly through.  However, after a few attempts, they learn the trick of tucking the wings in to pass through any gap narrower than their wingspan.  So, given the time and space in which to learn, pet parrots soon acquire the skills to fly well, though this may take a few weeks.  You will see a big change in a young bird’s flying abilities as soon as it learns how to apply the ‘air-brakes’.   It does this by dropping its tail feathers and using some reverse thrust with its primary feathers as it comes in to land.  Following acquisition of these skills the birds fly with much greater confidence and control.  

The bird will soon have better speed control and use its tail and a banking manoeuvre to change direction as well as reduce speed.  To land properly, the skilled flyer swoops up to the perch while the tail is dropped down.  This allows it to reduce speed.  At the point of landing (and unlike aircraft) the bird has to stall -to ensure zero airspeed as it reaches the perch.  Then, it twists its primary feathers forward to brake as it puts its feet out to grip the perch.  Clipped birds will still sometimes attempt to fly, but the loss of their primary feathers causes another problem; crash landings.  Clipped birds cannot use their primaries for reverse thrust, so they are often forced to crash-land.  This can result in injuries. 

As part of their normal development, parrots have a ‘behavioural window’ to learn to fly in the first few weeks of leaving the nest and it is vital that all young captive-bred birds be given this opportunity.  Good breeders will always encourage their birds to fly as soon as the bird’s natural urges reveal the desire to take to the air.  Soon after fledging (the natural point at which the bird leaves the nest) it will put on weight as it develops its powerful pectoral muscles on the chest.  Also, the heart will grow to its normal healthy size and develop to be able to beat at around a thousand beats per minute, as is required for flight.  Young birds fledged naturally will be very much fitter and stronger birds than those that have not had such opportunities to fly.  With this in mind, it is common sense that young birds should never be wing clipped.  Clipping at this stage could seriously affect both their mental and physical health for the rest of their lives, so this should never be done.  

So Why clip at all? 
The most common reasons given for wanting a bird clipped are:  

  • To prevent the bird escaping. 
  • To control a bird’s ‘dominant’ behaviour by limiting its ability to fly. 
  • Because the owner (or breeder) feels it is ‘safer’ for the bird. 
  • Because the owner doesn’t feel comfortable having a bird that can fly around the house.

 

Although the first three reasons may seem acceptable there are problems with these as we shall see.   However, the fourth reason is simply not acceptable: anyone who is not at ease with birds flying near them should consider the many alternative animals which can be kept as pets.  In truth, many birds are also clipped merely as a routine or default practice, without really thinking about the true effects on the bird of this procedure.  

Clipping to Prevent escape.
There are many different types of clipping which vary in their severity, but essentially there are two methods: either a one-wing clip, to deliberately unbalance the bird should it attempt to fly, or a symmetrical clip to both wings, which is meant to allow safe downward flight, but prevents lift.  The first method, where most of the primary feathers on one wing are cut off at the level of the wing coverts, is very crude, indeed very cruel. This clip can threaten the safety, indeed the life, of the bird.  Birds have spent millions of years evolving as highly skilled flying creatures and symmetry is vital to them.  To undermine this by deliberately making a bird unbalanced may also threaten the bird’s mental well-being.  Birds clipped on one-wing which then fall on any hard surface are vulnerable to fractures and bruising to the breastbone, broken limbs, head injuries and even death.  Parrots often start feather plucking a few weeks after such crude clipping and this problem can be impossible to cure in many birds.  

A light but even clipping of both wings is less harmful to the bird.  The intention here, is that the bird will be able to fly down and land safely, but it will be unable to fly up (cannot generate lift).  However, should such a bird get outdoors, it may be able to gain enough lift by facing into the wind and fly fairly normally.  So, the dilemma with a ‘better’ type of clipping is that while it denies the bird lift in the still ‘dead’ air indoors, it cannot stop a bird escaping by flight outdoors if there is some wind blowing to aid lift. 

All birds, clipped or not, are vulnerable to some dangers.  If a full-winged bird escapes it may go a considerable distance, especially if it panics.  However, clipped birds are vulnerable to different dangers.  For example, they tend to walk on the floor more, so they are more likely to be trodden on or caught by a door opening or closing onto them.  People with severely clipped birds may be less cautious about leaving their external doors open.  If such a clipped bird escapes, it may not get very far, but it is more vulnerable to attacks from dogs or cats or being run over by a vehicle when outdoors.  

More problems…
All flying birds, including parrots, have an escape response to danger which is both instinctive (not a learnt behaviour) and is a reflex action (the bird cannot control this action by a conscious decision).  The escape reflex action is caused by many aversive stimuli that the bird receives.  This may be a ‘real’ threat, such as the close approach of a person or animal the bird fears, or some perceived but ‘false’ or harmless threat such as the proximity of some harmless but unfamiliar object.  In performing the escape reflex action, the bird jumps into the air and takes flight to seek a higher perch where it will feel more secure as it can then look down, safely on the danger.  Only once air-borne, a second or two after the reflex action comes into play, does the bird have voluntary control of its own movements.  Clipping a bird does not (cannot) prevent the reflex action from taking place; where a clipped bird tries to fly and lands on any hard surface, it can sustain serious injuries.  It is the frustration of this predator-escape response caused by wing-clipping which causes many parrots great psychological stress.  Some birds transfer this frustration into maladaptive behaviours such as feather plucking, self-mutilation, biting or screaming.  With their freedom to move so limited, others may become ‘behaviourally tethered’ to their cage or stand, defending this space aggressively against anyone else. 

Moulting and re-growth of feathers can mean further problems for clipped birds.  Most people who clip birds’ wings don’t acknowledge the importance of flight to birds as part of the normal behavioural repertoire.  Often there is a lack of information on the evolutionary pressures which resulted in birds perfecting a flying lifestyle over millions years. Also, many parrot people remain unaware of the moulting sequence and rate of growth of flight feathers.  They fail to understand why, in parrots, these facts often lead to breaking and bleeding of blood feathers. 

Most parrots have 10 primary feathers which are attached to the ‘hand’ and 12 secondary feathers attached to the lower forearm (ulna).  These feathers are numbered, anatomically, in a standard way, as you look at the bird’s outstretched wing.  Primary number 1 (P1) is the innermost primary.  P10 is the outermost primary.  The outermost secondary is S1  (this is next to P1).  The innermost secondary (next , to the bird’s body) is S12.  Healthy parrots moult in a set way, (Juniper & Parr 1998) and their moulting sequence is quite different from most other birds such as passerines and raptors.  The middle primary, usually P6 is the first feather to be dropped from both wings and growth of the new replacement feathers starts immediately.  Most parrots, regardless of their size, grow their feathers at a rate of 3 – 4 millimetres every 24 hours (Glendell 2007).  So, it takes a grey parrot or Amazon with primaries measuring about 185cms, 52 days to grow one blood feather down.  You can usually see the growth rate of a feather as alternating, narrow, parallel dark and pale bands across each feather when this is viewed in good, bright daylight.  Once the new P6 is part grown, P5 and/or P7 will be moulted and start to be re-grown.  Then numbers P3 and P7 etc. working in both directions along both wings at the same time.  Once most primaries have been replaced, the bird starts to moult and replace its secondaries (S).  The full moulting sequence for most parrots is as follows, brackets indicate feathers usually moulted at the same time in pairs: P6, (P5+7) (P8+4) (P3+9) (P2+10) P1.  S1, straight through to S12 at the end of the moult.   This moulting sequence is an adaptation to maintain the symmetry that is vital to flying birds. 

Wing Clipping
Moulting sequence of most parrots
            A central primary, P no. 6 (shown red) is usually the first wing feather to be moulted. 

Normal healthy birds will not moult more than 3 flight feathers from the wing at once.  Large birds (with large flight feathers!) take much longer to grow each feather.  It may take a large macaw or cockatoo more than 18 months to complete a moult.  But a small parakeet may take no more than 3 months to complete the same process. 

Now, when a clipped bird tries to re-grow its wing feathers by producing the new ‘blood’ feathers, these are liable to be damaged.  This is because unlike the normal wing, a clipped wing does not have adjacent old, full-length feathers to give the new blood feathers any protection during their very delicate growth stage.   Bleeding can be profuse if such a feather is damaged.  Birds which do not show any behavioural problems at the time of clipping often develop problems later at this stage. They start to pick at the new unprotected feathers and this may prevent proper re-growth of all clipped feathers.  If your bird is clipped, it is best to restore flight immediately by having donor feathers attached to the clipped feather stumps.  This procedure is called imping and can be carried out by an avian vet.  I can supply donor flight feathers for most ‘pet’ parrot species to vets for imping.   The bird should of course also be trained to fly to and from you, and to and from other familiar places on a verbal request from you. 

Clipping to have more control over your bird.
This is commonly given as the reason for clipping.   However, most people who ask for their bird to be clipped for control reasons have not even been informed of the option of basic training of flight requests with their bird, yet most parrots respond very well to training within a few days.  In addition to teaching a bird to “Step up” and “Go down” off the hand, I normally teach these additional requests:
“Stay”.  This means do not approach me or fly to me for the moment. 
"Go". Means leave me by flying off me.
Off there".  Means leave your present perch and fly to another place (usually used as a safety request). 
“On here” This means please fly to me now. 
These flight requests are taught using reward-based training methods; the bird gets something it really likes such as head scritches, a favourite  toy or favourite food treat while learning the new requests.  Once learnt by the bird these requests give carers all the control they need of their bird. 
Another major advantage of teaching a bird the basic flight requests is that should the bird ever escape, it can be much easier to get it back once you have spotted it, since trained birds tend to still accept these requests by the person they are bonded to even when they are outdoors.  Having kept parrots for over 25 years, I have had quite a few birds escape.  However, I have never lost any trained birds, and only ever lost one untrained one (in 1992).  I have recovered escaped Amazons, greys, conures and Meyers parrots by this means. 

Wings are for flying!

Prospective buyers of parrots are often simply not told about the serious consequences of wing clipping especially as regards young birds.  These problems do not often appear until many weeks or months after the bird is in its new home.  Since the basic training can give you good control of a flighted bird there is no need to have any bird clipped.  It only takes a few minutes to clip a bird’s wings but it can take months or even years (and expensive vet’s bills) to correct the problems that wing-clipping can cause. 

Birds trained to accept a few extra ‘requests’ from their main carers can of course spend much more time out of their cage since they cause fewer problems while enjoying valuable time with you and the relative freedom that this gives them.  Flying birds also get good effective exercise which is vital for them to be strong, healthy birds.  Parrots are very different from the domesticated creatures kept as pets.  Even captive-bred birds remain essentially ‘wild’ animals with a vital need to perform as many of their natural behaviours as possible each day of their lives.  This should include daily periods of flight, even if this is only indoors.  With this in mind, parrot owners should be prepared to adapt their homes, at least to a certain degree, to the bird’s needs, instead of adapting the bird, by clipping it and disabling it for their convenience.  Flight is something to be encouraged in parrots; not something which should be denied the birds almost by default.  By teaching birds some basic flight requests, carers can have all the ‘control’ they need of their flying bird, and the bird will be fitter, stronger and healthier in many ways. 

Greg Glendell BSc (hons) works as a full-time companion parrot behaviour consultant in Somerset in the UK.  He has written several books on companion parrot care.  For further information contact Greg at: mail@greg-parrots.co.uk or see: www.greg-parrots.co.uk 

Copyright, Greg Glendell 2008

Ref
Glendell G. Breaking Bad Habits in Parrots.  Interpet 2007.  
Juniper T and Parr M.  Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World.  Pica Press 1998.