Avian Behavior

Little Critters Veterinary Hospital

1525 N Gilbert Road Suite #C-101
Gilbert, AZ 85234

(480)696-7744

www.littlecrittersvet.com

Avian Behavior 

The correct Beginning:

When starting with a baby bird (chick) it is extremely important to interact with the baby, as you will be doing throughout its life. This means that you spend the time with the cute little baby that you will have to spend with the adult bird. Many behavior problems are thought to arise from a well-meaning owner spending every minute of his/her spare time with their new adorable baby and allowing them to rule the house. Problems arise when the bird becomes an adult and suddenly is no longer the center of attention.

Routine:

I encourage my clients to start from the first day by establishing a routine for their interaction with their new bird. This should be a routine with which they will be able to follow throughout the bird’s life. For instance, I recommend not rushing to the bird’s cage the instant you come home because this teaches the bird to expect immediate attention every time you walk in the door. You want the bird to be comfortable both with and without your constant presence. A well-adjusted bird will play happily in its cage as well as with you.

Also, start from the beginning by introducing new objects into their environment such as toys and exposing them to new people and situations. This helps to desensitize the bird to change later in life.

To fly or not to fly:

Some avian experts believe that in order for a chick to grow into a confidant adult they need to learn to fly. Flying not only builds muscle, but the bird also learns to navigate and seems to promote balance and the development of confidence. This method utilized a delayed wing trim on young birds. The bird is allowed to fledge out and learn to fly. I recommend teaching your bird to come to you on cue at this point or you’ll be forever retrieving them form topmost areas of your house. Once the bird has gained a good flying ability the outer few primary wing feathers are gradually clipped until the bird is no longer able to gain lift. I do believe that this result in a better emotionally developed bird, but if you decide to utilize this method of raising your bird you must understand the inherent danger. Young birds will have no navigation ability and will fly into walls and windows to they should only be allowed to fly in a "safe" room and they should be kept out of kitchens and bathrooms – full of dangers to the young flier. Of course, the primary danger is that your bird could escape the house and be forever lost. For that reason, I don’t recommend this method if young children are in the house (it is just about impossible to always watch for the open doors). And this is another reason the bird should be taught to fly to you on command early in life, but realize that a frightened young bird that escapes the house may be long gone before you can call the baby back. To learn more on training birds to fly with a strong recall see this LINK 

Enrich the environment: Foraging Behavior is a MUST for all pet birds

Because we want our birds to be content in their cage during the times that we cannot interact with them, it is important that the cage be a fun place to be and not a prison. Enriching the environment means providing distractions for your bird in many different ways.

Toys:

Toys are an essential part of your bird’s life. I recommend keeping a toy box and rotating through several toys on a weekly basis to prevent boredom. Of course the toys must be bird safe. This means that they must have lead and zinc free paint and not have areas where the bird can get toes or tongue entrapped. Birds can hang themselves so the diameter of rings is important and should be either too small to allow a head through or very large to prevent entrapment. The type of material used in the toys is also noteworthy. The new acrylic toys are pretty and last forever, but aren’t always the best choice. Birds are chewers by nature and should have toys that they can demolish. I like the new wood toy boxes that are available at the national chain pet stores. These boxes have various shaped wood toys stained with vegetable dyes. The advantage is not only the chew ability, but also the ability of the bird to pick up the toy and hold it. These types of toys often prove satisfying to cockatoos that like to demolish their perches. Other toys I’ve found useful for our intelligent friends are the toys that the birds have to learn to use. These are toys built so that the bird has to do something to get to a treat or to make the object move. The more "mechanical" driven birds that like to find new ways of opening their cage door often love this type of toy

Common Behavior Problems:

  • Screaming- see behavior tips below – teach your bird to whisper
  • Chewing/Destructive Behavior – see toys and caging.
  • Biting: Biting can be due to a variety of reasons but a few of the more common reasons are:


Gaining independence:

Many young birds will go through a stage in which they are learning how much force to use with their beaks and also attempting to gain some independence. At this time owners will often get a few bites. I recommend that when the bird bites too hard tell the bird no and place back in the cage. Often this is all you need to do to teach the bird not to bite from the get go. Remember that we are not trying to stop the bird from using its beak – they will often use the beak to grasp your hand while stepping up and to preen us. We are only trying to teach the bird how much force it can use.

Hormonal:

This is a tough one and something I commonly see in Amazons when they reach maturity, but it can occur in all types of birds. Often you will see a loving young bird suddenly turn on the individual who has raised it and pick another family member as their favorite. This is similar to a wild bird leaving its parents and choosing a mate. The best way of dealing with this is to understand that his is a natural behavior and have the family member the bird has picked limit their interaction with your bird, spend time with the bird when that family member is absent, and ensure that only you are the one to provide all favorite treats and activities. The environment can also be altered somewhat to attempt to reduce breeding behavior. Limiting the daylight hours to mimic a winter sun will often help.

Territorial:

This can often be linked to hormonal behavior but typically is the bird that is over protective of its cage and will bite any introduced hand. Firstly, your bird should be taught the up command for the start. In this way the bird is trained to always step onto your hand with this command. Often only letting the bird out of the cage by first having it step up and onto your hand will limit the development of aggression. Some people advocate teaching the bird to step up onto a perch. This can be used but only if the bird is unafraid of the offered perch. Once this bird steps up I recommend taking the bird away from the cage for any further interaction – choosing a neutral territory. Another expression of territoriality can occur as a form of jealousy in which the bird is aggressive to others and sometimes to the owner in the other family member’s presence. This behavior can be improved by encouraging the bird to interact with the other family member(s) for treats and special attention out of the owner’s presence (basically the reverse of a hormonal bird).

Feather Picking & Skin Mutilation:

Feather picking is the most frustrating behavior we have to treat in the veterinary medical field and skin mutilation is the worst manifestation of the behavior. The first and most important thing is to have the bird thoroughly examined by an avian veterinarian. I always recommend to clients to give their bird the benefit of the doubt and first assume it is a medical problem. If medical problems are ruled out then we can safely spend the time needed to work on the behavior. Of course the easiest and best way to treat feather picking is to avoid it in the first place (see the correct beginning below). However, if you already have a feather picker there are some things we can do.

First realize that feather picking has many forms including those listed below in 1-4, following the discussion on types of pickers will be a discussion on some basic changes that may help your bird. Again, the best resource is your avian veterinarian and I always recommend discussing any changes with her/him prior to the implementation:

1) Over preening of feathers:

Over preening is often the first sign of a potential feather picker and can be seen in birds of all ages but I often see this in young birds that have not yet started to pick. Certainly, not all over preeners will go on to pick, but in my experience these birds are at a higher risk of becoming pickers. So what is over preening? My definition is a bird that almost appears obsessed with its feathers and appears to constantly be preening or mouthing its feathers. Of course, preening is a normal activity that is needed for the health of the bird, but the individuals I’m discussing seem to be mouthing their feathers the vast majority of the day and with increased frequency when disturbed by environmental change. Also, the feathers of these birds often look ragged due to this over preening. In my experience these birds are less confident and more prone to emotional upset by any type of change. However, these guys are the lucky ones because if caught at this stage they have a good chance of a normal life in captivity.

2) Chewing of feathers:

Our feather chewers can be self chewers or can be companion birds that are picking or chewing the feathers of the face and cheeks of their cage mate. For this discussion I’m focusing on the self chewers as another manifestation of picking. Okay, these guys are not necessarily pulling out entire feathers but actually appears to be grooming and while doing so are chewing off parts or all of the feathers. Some of these guys will only have the tips of the feathers chewed as seem by the jagged/irregular edges. The others of this group will actually chew off the entire feather and can chew all feathers on the body or just a select few. The chewed feathers can be identified by the remains of an irregular feather shaft especially on the wings and tail

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3) Plucking out feathers:

The feather plucker is the most common type we see in practice. These guys will vary from the bird that just plucks a few coverts exposing the fluffy underlying gray down feathers (often over the top of the wings) to the bird that has plucked its entire body. Please note that pluckers cannot pluck out head feathers so if a bird is also missing head feather (and doesn’t have a cage mate that may be plucking) the bird is likely losing feathers from another cause such as PBFD virus. So, the typical whole body plucker has few to no feathers on the entire body, except the head which is usually in perfect feather. Often we see these birds after they have been plucking for an extended period of time or have seen several other veterinarians. Again, realize that it is best to start treatment early with all feather pickers and to do a complete laboratory health work-up first.

4) Chewing on skin to create wounds:

  • Not all feathers chewers or pluckers will go on to actual skin mutilation, but this manifestation if the most dangerous for the individual bird. These birds will also pluck feathers, but will go on to actual chewing/tearing of the skin. Areas targeted can vary but often I see injury/scabs on the keel or feet and legs. The injuries can vary from mild superficial skin wounds to life threatening injuries. I consider this an emergency problem for the bird and thus it must be addressed immediately. I’m not a big fan of placing birds in e-collars (cones that look like lamp shades and placed around the neck to prevent access to the body) but often time these guys have to be collared to prevent ongoing injury. If an e-collar is used it is extremely important to work on correcting any underlying medical and/or behavioral issues. The e-collar should not be used as the correction to the problem and the bird should not be made to live its life in the collar.
  • Read more about treatment: LINK

  • Read more about Avian Behavior at Parrot Problem Solving LINK 

  • Make your own Parrot Foraging cups from Parrot Problem Solving LINK