The Avian Veterinarian: Tips for Choosing One You Can Trust

Do you have an avian veterinarian that you trust 100% and to whom you take your birds on a regular basis? If so, you are profoundly lucky and your birds are even luckier.  The majority of parrots never see a vet until there is a health crisis.  Very sick birdSince it is a crisis, often the time is not there to choose a vet carefully, which decreases the chances of a positive outcome unless you get lucky.

If you don’t have such a veterinarian, you may want to think about the many benefits of establishing and maintaining such a relationship. For one thing, if you have chosen an excellent avian vet, he will recommend annual exams.

The Value of Routine Care

There is no substitute for an annual exam performed by an experienced, skilled avian vet. During such a routine exam, the vet will look closely at your parrot’s skin, ears, eyes, and nares. He will check the choanal cleft in the roof of the mouth. He will check the health of the cloaca. He will listen to the heart. He will weigh your bird and determine a body condition score, so that you know whether your parrot might need to lose some weight or gain some. Caique Restraint

He or his knowledgeable staff will take a thorough history so that he knows what your parrot eats, how often he is bathed, and what type of exposure he has. If diet changes need to be made, he will make recommendations and then follow-up on your success. He may even be able to either assist with basic behavior problems or know someone to whom he can refer you.

Five primary benefits accrue from bringing your parrot in annually for an exam:

  • Problems can be caught early; you are much less likely to be surprised by a serious health crisis.
  • Your parrot learns over the years to tolerate the stress of the veterinary visit and be comfortable in the exam room. Should he ever become ill, the stress of the illness will not be compounded by the stress of his very first vet visit.
  • Your vet gets to know you and how you relate to your parrot, giving him the ability to make you more comfortable. He will also be less shy (if he has a tendency in that direction) when making recommendations. Many professionals in the veterinary community feel a bit hesitant about making recommendations that they know are going to cost the client a lot of money. You don’t want a vet to minimize recommendations for diagnostics or treatment, if your parrot really needs them. You can always say “no.”
  • You develop a sense of trust in your vet. You know you can trust him not to recommend anything that isn’t really in the best interests of your bird. You’ve also been able to speak to him over the years about affordable care. This makes coming up with a treatment plan much quicker and easier at times of illness. Parrot in Carrier
  • Lastly, having to get your parrot into a carrier once a year means that you are perhaps a tad more motivated to provide enough training to maintain compliance with basic requests (step up, step off, stay there, go into the cage, go into the carrier).

Strength of Commitment

There is one more, very important, benefit to you that derives from such a relationship.  If the vet and his staff know you and your commitment to your parrot, they will be more likely to move heaven and earth to get your parrot in to be seen should an emergency or illness occur.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be this way, but that is the reality.  The commitment they show may very well mirror the commitment that you have shown over the years.

I have worked as a licensed technician for two different avian and exotic veterinarians since 2002, although I just retired this past January.  The emergency clinic in our town doesn’t have an avian vet on staff.  However, they still see birds. Both of the vets for whom I worked did not feel overly confident in that care, so both would come in on days off…take birds home…anything they could do to help an established client with a sick bird.  If you do not have such a relationship, you may not get that level of commitment from a new vet. If they are busy that day, you may very well be referred elsewhere.

Finding Your Vet

Finding the right avian vet can be challenging. An avian veterinarian is merely someone who is willing to see birds. Anyone can call themselves an avian vet. Therefore, this task is not as easy as consulting Google. Research is required.

Some believe that finding a certified avian veterinarian is the best choice. ABVPSuch a vet has obtained certification from the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). In order to obtain this, veterinarians must have maintained for six years a high-quality, full-time practice experience with birds.  They must be able to document a commitment to continuing education of high quality. They must demonstrate the ability to communicate professionally and scientifically by preparing written case reports. They must also pass a very rigorous examination.

Board certification is only one quality that is important. It is without doubt a desirable factor. However, I consider handling skills and length of experience treating birds to be even more important.  I once took a young African grey to a board certified avian veterinarian who turned him on his back to listen to his heart, much to the distress of my parrot. On the other hand, the two vets for whom I worked were excellent, amazingly skilled veterinarians, well able to both think outside the box and demonstrate humility and compassion with clients. Neither were board certified.

To search for a board certified avian vet in your area, you can go to the ABVP website.

A more diagnostic attribute when seeking an avian vet is membership in the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV).  If a veterinarian is a member and chooses to regularly attend continuing education provided by this organization, he will be staying up to date with recent advances in avian medicine.  This is important.  The Find A Vet Form on the AAV website allows you to search for a member vet near you. ­

Ten Characteristics You Want in a Veterinarian

When seeking an avian vet, it helps to know what you are looking for.

  1. A reception staff familiar with birds and triage. They know the right questions to ask to assess urgency. Veterinary-Receptionist-HomeThey understand the basics for patient comfort – they get you into an exam room right away rather than have you sit with your parrot next to the Mastiff with diarrhea. They also have a general knowledge of parrot species. They are able to tell you that your parrot is an Amazon after you have described him as a green bird. (Happens all the time.) I purchased Rosemary Low’s book Parrots in Aviculture to help the receptionists at my clinics. It’s out of print but still available on Amazon.
  2. Technicians who are skilled at restraint and who take a true interest in you and your parrot. They can determine the existence of and prioritize husbandry concerns to address and perhaps even provide education accordingly.
  3. The entire staff has a commitment to low stress or Fear-Free veterinary care. The Fear Free organization offers certification to individuals committed to alleviating the fear, stress and anxiety that pets often feel when coming to the vet. They have now finalized their education for exotic vets, which should broaden our ability in the future to locate those vets who work to minimize stress for our birds.
  4. The veterinarian has excellent handling skills himself. He is able to gain access to the parrot in a way that minimizes stress. VetwithMacawHe holds the parrot no longer than is absolutely necessary. He understands body language and can assess the parrot’s stress levels and respond accordingly. He prioritizes your bird’s stress over his busy schedule.
  5. He is a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and regularly attends high-quality continuing education (at least once a year).
  6. He has lived with parrots himself or at least really seems to like birds.
  7. He is respectful and answers questions patiently, providing clear explanations.
  8. He displays a willingness to research and consult other, more experienced, veterinarians when faced with a new challenge.
  9. There is coverage for emergencies, whether the veterinarian provides the care himself or a referral to another clinic.
  10. The practice sees at least five to ten birds a week.

I don’t require that my veterinarian have knowledge of behavior problems and their solutions. Behavior is a very complex subject.  Many vets have shown a real commitment to learning about behavior. However, if your primary focus is medicine and you have limited hands-on experience solving problems, your knowledge is going to be severely restricted.  A better quality in a vet is one who maintains a relationship with and refers without hesitation to an excellent certified behavior consultant.

I don’t ask about fees.  One of the clinics at which I worked has a reputation for being “expensive.”  We were. Our annual fee review always found we were in the 75% percentile. That meant that we were more expensive than 75% of other clinics in our geographical area.

But guess what? That clinic had up to date equipment. The staff was encouraged to go to continuing education and were paid for it. Our compensation was commensurate with the stress and long hours of the job. And because of this, we all went the extra mile for clients and were able to provide higher quality care. When it comes to veterinary care, you often get what you pay for.

If money is a chronic issue, consider pet insurance.  More companies are beginning to cover care for birds. Don’t get coverage for routine care. Make a monthly deposit into a savings account for that. Instead, cover yourself and your bird against the unexpected.

My last bit of advice: Be prepared to travel.  I sometimes hear folks complain that their avian vet is too far away.  Honestly? Be happy if you have a truly excellent avian vet within two hours of driving. Yes, it’s inconvenient.  But, at least you have a truly excellent avian vet.  Consider yourself lucky.

Narrowing the Search

After you have located the “avian” vets in your area, make a telephone call to each. Be armed with a list of questions. Call and say, “Hello, I am looking for a new avian vet and I’m wondering if someone there might be able to answer a few questions for me.”  The response should be friendly and eager. Happy ClientA good clinic will be happy to take the time to answer any questions for a potential new client. If someone isn’t available at once, you should receive a call back before the end of the day. Once you get someone on the phone, you can ask the following questions:

  • How many years has the vet been seeing birds?
  • How many birds does the clinic see in a week?
  • What percentage of the practice is avian?
  • Do you recommend annual exams?
  • What types of diagnostics do you recommend annually? Do the recommended tests change with the age of the bird?
  • How do you minimize stress for the parrots who come in?
  • What provisions do you have for emergencies? Is there an emergency clinic that sees birds or do you make some arrangements for after-hour care?
  • Is the veterinarian a member of AAV?
  • Does he have any birds himself?

Ask for A Tour

You may not be able to find a clinic who provides desirable answers to all of those questions, but if the results are at all positive, ask if you can come in for a tour.  A really excellent clinic will jump at the chance to show you around.

They should, without being asked, take you into every area of the clinic except the doctors’ offices, any quarantine areas, and the surgery. That said, you should at least be able to look through the door into the surgery room.

Schedule a Wellness Visit

If you are impressed by the tour, schedule a get-to-know-you visit. This will allow you to see for yourself the way the staff behaves with your parrot and evaluate their skill at restraint.

If you have any niggling worries while there, try to address them by asking questions.  If that attempt is not successful, go onto the next clinic for a phone call and tour.

Your Part in Identifying Health Concerns

It may be that you can’t find an avian vet who meets the criteria suggested above. Depending upon where you live in the world, you might not have access to a vet at all. If so, the suggestions below may be helpful in maintaining your parrot’s health and avoiding emergencies. Even if you do have a great avian vet, you should practice these same things anyway.

First, feed an excellent diet. In order to do so, you have to know what an excellent diet is. Even if you think you do know, conferring with a professional knowledgeable about avian nutrition is the best idea.

Second, weigh your bird weekly at about the same time each day. Weight loss is often the first sign of illness. Remember that your bird is a prey animal and will hide any signs of illness until the very last minute. If he does fall ill, you may not get much warning. By weighing your parrot, you stand a better chance of catching things early. You can use a kitchen scale that weighs in grams, as long as you create a non-slip surface.  Alternatively, Old Will Knott Scales sells those made specifically for parrots.

Third, examine his droppings daily. Just use plain newspaper (printed or not) in the bottom of the cage.  Learn what normal droppings look like. If you see changes that persist, such as increased urine, unformed feces or urates that change from white to tan or green, you may have a sick parrot.

Fourth, really look at your parrot daily.  That may seem silly to say.  But, I don’t mean just look at his face when you talk to him.  Instead, really look at every part of him. I do this when I’m feeding.  Look closely at the feet, the tail and wings, the feathers…any part that you can visualize without actually restraining him.  You would be surprised at the number of times parrots are presented for exams with obvious visible problems that have gone unnoticed.  Hone your observational skills!

If you think at any time that your parrot may need medical attention but don’t have a vet who sees birds in your area, see if you can find a vet who will consult with an avian vet by telephone.  You will likely have to pay for this, but a lot can be accomplished through this type of coaching. It’s better than no care at all.

Please realize that you need to partner with an avian veterinarian. Finding the right one takes work.  But, to do so is a gift to your parrot.  It will increase his quality of life over the long run. It will give you peace of mind, knowing that you have a skilled professional on your side should illness or injury strike.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

 

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

Abbie contacted me in early April 2018.  Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December.  He was 13 years old at the time and had livOscarandChristieed with Abbie for 5 years.  Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem.  Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.

Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support.  Abbie describes her feelings at the time: 

When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking. 

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Before Photo (early April 2018)

Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better. 

 It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.

It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.

A Complex Problem

Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation.  You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.

Describing all of the risk factors for FDB is not within the scope of today’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible causes, please read my two-part article Feather Destructive Behavior in Companion Parrots.

I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all.  I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future.  I could immediately reassure her.  The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem.  It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.

Identification of Causes

I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.

  1.  First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
  2. Scout also lacked “play skills.”  He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
  3. I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
  4. Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.

Stress and Feather Picking

I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college.  Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.

Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving.  Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are.  However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.

In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work.  As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time.  Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:

Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.

Evolving the Pair Bond

Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.

I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor.  This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him.  He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.

However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). OscaronBasketAgain we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size.  They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest.  Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.

We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much.  Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.

Foraging and Enrichment

Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily.  This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on his feathers.  Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.

In my experience, you just have to find a starting point.  I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.

While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage.  If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys.  By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.

Making Changes to Diet

We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.

I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.

I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.

Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout.  Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. ChristieTargeting Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.

In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.

Stress

We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress.  There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.

Results

By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.

OscarAfter
After Photo (mid-June 2018)

Remember the “before” photo above?  The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.

Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem.  However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.

It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt.  In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective.  In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month.  That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.

Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.

Lessons to Be Learned

  • If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
  • Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
  • Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
  • Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems.  Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!

Have you found success in stopping feather destruction?  If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Pellets: To Feed or Not to Feed

Parrot nutrition is a special area of interest for me and one about which I am fairly passionate. The foods that a parrot eats will literally determine his experience, physically and emotionally, throughout his life. photo-1436902799100-7eb776a61f79

What we are doing as a population of bird owners is not working. Too many parrots are diagnosed daily with malnutrition and the often fatal illnesses that result. As a veterinary technician, I have seen it too often.

I also know how hard bird owners work at feeding a healthy diet. But it’s not an easy task. Information found on the internet results in both confusion and frustration. Too many websites voice strong opinions without citing sources or even acknowledging authorship in some cases.

And, parrots offer their own set of challenges. Adult parrots often don’t accept new foods readily. Second, they are biologically “programmed” to consume high energy (high fat) foods before consuming others that may offer better nutrition and more fiber. This can make them resistant to eating lower fat foods if both are offered in plenty. (Molukwu, M. 2011)

I will tell you up front that I am a strong advocate of feeding pellets – not as 100% of the diet, but as a wholesome and beneficial staple in the diet. downloadIf you are staunchly opposed to feeding pellets, then please do not read on. This is written for those with an open mind. On the other hand, if you are undecided or wish you could get your parrot to eat pellets and can’t…then this blog is for you.

Nutrient Requirements for Parrots

I once again just recently researched published scientific information about parrot diets. It is still true that the best minds don’t know for certain what the best diet is for any parrot. They readily admit this. “Few nutrient requirements have been derived scientifically for companion birds, so nutrient requirements are based on the best guess from galliforms [chickens, ducks, turkeys, Japanese quail]”. (Orosz, S. 2006)Photo by Kris Porter

“Companion bird nutrition has virtually no tradition. In the last fifteen years progress has been made in the area of pet avian nutrition. As companion bird popularity increases, interest into researching nutritional needs has surfaced. There is still a relative lack of research information due to lack of funding, need to research “natural” diets, and the difficulty in duplicating nutritional needs in captivity.” (Ritzman, T. 2008) It is now ten years after that was written, and progress in growing our knowledge has been slow.

In the face of such a lack of knowledge, why would anyone adhere so strongly to their own prejudices that pellets aren’t important to a balanced diet when most veterinarians advocate their use so strongly? Significant advances in parrot health have been seen since they were introduced. Yet many do.

Let’s take a look at the many aspects of feeding pellets, so that you can make up your own mind about the correct choice: Should I feed my parrot pellets, or not?

The Default Diet

First, I contend that we all need a “default” diet. By this I mean a diet that our parrots will eat that we can pour out of a bag. Serving other foods can be good for adding variety into the diet to ensure nutritional balance. However, the day may come when some problem prevents you from following through with your usual parrot food preparation plans. In times of disaster, we need a food that we can serve quickly that will support good health.

This “default diet” is going to be either a seed mix or a formulated diet. If we want to protect our parrots’ health, we can’t feed seed as the main dietary staple. Not only does daily consumption of a seed mix lead to malnutrition, it sets the parrot up to develop diseases like obesity, lipoma development, atherosclerosis and fatty liver disease.

Problems with Seed Mixes

Seed mixes are deficient in 32 essential nutrients. They are very low vitamin A, which is essential  if the  immune system is to function correctly. If it does not, illness results. Seed mixes also lead to calcium deficiencies, which can put a bird’s life in peril. Many egg-bound birds who lay soft shell eggs do so because of the seed mix they eat.images (7)

Feeding a high-fat diet can also contribute to behavior problems. Dr. Jamie Lindstrom explains: “As we provide these high carb, high lipid diets, we’re also providing these birds with high energy. If the parrot has insufficient opportunities to expend this energy, it leads to some of the aberrant behaviors, such as screaming and biting, that we see in these birds.”  (Lindstrom, J. 2010)

Fatty foods give the parrot more energy, which may be channeled into biting or screaming. With one client years ago, I improved a screaming problem simply by converting a Scarlet Macaw from a seed mix to pellets and vegetables. That wasn’t the sole solution of course, but that change was crucial to long-term success. It is also thought by many that high fat diets contribute to increased “hormonal” behaviors, such as cavity seeking, intense bonding with one person in the family, paper shredding on the bottom of the case, and territorial aggression. (Hoppes, S. 2018)

In Defense of Seed Mixes

Some defend seed mixes by pointing out that pellets have been mixed with the seed or that vitamins have been sprayed on the outside of the seeds to create a “balanced” diet. However, whether a diet is deemed balanced or not depends upon what that bird actually eats. When given the option of seeds vs. pellets, parrots usually only eat the seed. When vitamins are sprayed on the outside of seeds, this also does nothing to balance the diet. Parrots hull all of the seeds they consume. Thus, the added vitamins wind up on the floor of the cage with the shells. “For the supplement to be effective, it must be consumed in proportion to its presence in the mix.” (Brilling Hill, Inc. 1996)

Even if the attempt is made to balance a seed mix by feeding table food, the fact still remains that seed mixes contain too much fat for the average parrot. Adding table food can make this worse, as most Americans do not eat a low-fat diet. There really is no valid argument in favor of feeding a seed mix as the chosen dietary staple. That leaves us with the option of feeding pellets  (formulated diets).

Types of Formulated Diets

Formulated diets come in three types. Two of the types are typically lumped together, being described as “pellets.”  The third type is manufactured by combining seeds and pellets into one product. An example would be the Lafeber Nutriberries and Avicakes.

 Pelleted or Extruded Diets

Not all pellets are created equal. There are two methods for manufacturing a “pelleted” diet. The first creates an extruded nugget.  An example of this type would be Zupreem or Pretty Bird. Some extruded products contain sugar, which makes them a favorite among many parrots. Some say that it is easier to convert a parrot to an extruded nugget, but I have not found this to be true.images (8)

Extruded diets are manufactured by forcing a mixture of dry, ground ingredients and water through a die under high pressure and high temperature. The higher temperatures required to produce extruded diets may cause more nutrient depletion than happens with pelleted foods. In either case, nutrients that break down under higher temperatures are then added back into the product to ensure that nutrient levels are met. (Brilling Hill. 1996)

Extruded diets often, but not always, contain chemical dyes that are made from petroleum. It has not been substantiated definitively that food dyes cause behavior problems or allergies in children. However, many swear that this is the case. Choose a product without artificial coloring if this is a concern of yours.

True pellets, on the other hand, are produced by adding steam to a mixture of dry, ground ingredients and then forcing this through a die to create the shape. Generally, they are produced under lower temperatures than are extruded nuggets. Some pellet brands are organic and non-GMO. Ingredients may be less finely ground and there may be more whole-food ingredients listed on the label. Harrison’s is an example of a pelleted diet.

A word of caution: You can’t choose a pellet simply by reading the ingredient list. Organic, non-GMO, and a variety of ingredients are all good claims. However, you must also ask yourself what person or body is behind the product.

Who formulated the product? Do they have a degree in nutrition or other pertinent education? Was any research done during the formulation? Any feeding trials performed?  Do they claim that the pellet is a complete diet? If the company cannot willingly and happily provide you with this information, you should consider another choice.

Arguments Against Feeding Pellets

Let’s look at some of the arguments often given for not feeding pellets:

Argument: Pellets are too dry and can contribute to a “dry crop mix” if the parrot doesn’t drink enough water.

Answer: I have never seen or heard of such a case. Parrots in the wild consume many foods, including soil, that vary widely in moisture content. It is likely that they readily adjust their water intake to account for this. If a parrot is ill or is prevented access to water, this could be an issue. However, consuming pellets poses no risk to a healthy parrot.

Argument: Pellets are boring.

Answer: They are to us. We can’t know how our parrots regard them. In any case, I’m not sure that parrots expect their food to be exciting. That said, this is why it’s a good idea to offer a variety of vegetables, limited fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

Argument: Pellets do not allow for natural foraging behavior.

Answer: They do if you include them in foraging toys and other foraging opportunities.

Argument: Pellets cannot possibly meet the nutritional needs of all species of parrots kept in captivity.

Answer: This is probably true, especially for those species who forage from a huge selection of plant materials and invertebrates in the wild. However, it’s no reason not to feed them. They offer balanced nutrition. It’s up to us to supplement the pellets with enough healthy variety as described above to make sure that we get as close as possible to offering a balanced diet.

Argument: Pellets are not palatable so parrots don’t like them.

Answer: Not true. This argument is the result of incorrectly interpreting behavior. Many people conclude this after offering pellets and finding that the parrot won’t eat them. Introducing pellets has to be done correctly to ensure acceptance. You can’t offer a choice between seeds and pellets and then conclude that the parrot doesn’t like pellets. This is like offering a two-year-old a choice between broccoli and ice cream. Further, if a parrot hasn’t seen pellets before, it may take several weeks of offering them before he accepts them.  

Argument: Eating pellets leads to iron storage disease (hemochromatosis).

Answer: True… IF your parrot consumes moderate quantities of both pellets and citrus fruits or juice. Parrots do not need dietary iron and too much iron absorbed from the diet can cause a health risk. The ascorbic acid in citrus fruit causes increased absorption of iron from the diet. There is no need to feed citrus fruits and they are best avoided in a pellet-eating parrot.

Argument: Veterinarians only recommend pellets because they make money off of them.

Answer: This is so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit a response.

Argument: Eclectus parrots develop toe-tapping and wing flipping if you feed them pellets.

Answer: Actually, these behaviors cannot be blamed solely on pellets or vitamin supplementation.  (Desborough, L. 2014)

Argument:: Converting my parrot to pellets is just too hard; he never eats them.

Answer: He will if you introduce them in the right way. Read on…the next section is for you.

But first, an additional argument is often presented. Why feed pellets at all?  Why not just offer a healthy variety and allow the parrot to choose which foods he needs? GreyIn theory, this should work. In practice, it does not. I can assure you of that from my own personal experience. In addition, “a self-selected diet in African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) resulted in a diet that was deficient in a total of 12 dietary components consisting of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. (Orosz, S. Lafeber.com)” For most species a combination of a formulated diet (50-80%) is ideal along with fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other appropriate fresh foods.” (Ritzman, T. 2008)

 Converting the Seed-Eating Parrot to Pellets

 Let me reassure you about two things. First, I have never been unsuccessful in converting a parrot from seed to pellets. Second, I have never found it necessary to make the parrot hungry in order to accomplish this goal. If pellets are introduced correctly, your parrot will choose to eat them. The following is a foolproof method for getting your parrot to eat pellets:

First, make a chop mix for your bird. You may already have heard of “chop.” (While some lay claim to this idea, some version of it has been around for a long time.) Chop.FBWhole grains are cooked, then mixed with finely chopped vegetables and other items. The mix is frozen and then defrosted for feeding. It’s a good way to get a lot of variety into a parrot’s diet and offer a foraging experience. Here is an excellent article about making chop.

The only way you can screw this idea up is by including too many “goodies” (nuts, wheat-based pasta, dried fruit, etc.) into your mix. It should include only grains as close to nature as possible and a wide variety of vegetables. Other healthful additions might include flax seed, pasta made from legumes, sprouts, etc.  Using the chop mix to convert the parrot to eating pellets works extremely well for birds who are used to being offered variety.

Once you have created your chop mix:

  • Measure the amount of seed mix consumed each day.
  • Mix this into an equal quantity of chop mix; offer this on a daily basis. (Your parrot will need to forage through the chop in order to eat his seeds. If he won’t go near the dish, then you will need initially to offer a small quantity of seed in a separate dish so that he doesn’t go hungry.)
  • At the same time, begin to offer in a separate dish a good-quality pellet. Don’t worry if he doesn’t eat them at this time. Feed fresh pellets daily in a small quantity (two or three) until he starts to eat them.
  • When you observe that he is eating some of the grains and vegetables, start reducing the amount of seed you mix into his chop. (You can reduce the overall quantity of seed by as little as one teaspoon a week if he is slow to eat the chop. Or, you can reduce it more quickly if he eats the chop mix readily. Take your cues from your parrot. Go as slowly or as quickly as he needs, but continue to steadily reduce weekly the amount of seed you put into the chop.)
  • Drumroll: At some point (once the quantity of seed mix offered gets to the point where he can no longer rely on it to meet his nutritional need for dietary fat) he will begin to eat the pellets. You won’t have to do anything else to encourage him to eat pellets.
  • Once he is eating the pellets well, completely eliminate the seed mix from the daily diet. Give it to the wild birds or use it to reward different behaviors that you ask him to perform.

Please note that this method is intended for species other than budgerigars and cockatiels. Generally, veterinarians recommend feeding these species fewer pellets. I convert these birds first from seed to Labefer Nutriberries and Avicakes, then add in a smaller quantity of pellets. This method has been most successful.

There are other ways, of course, to successfully introduce pellets to parrots. However, if I make this blog any longer, no one will read it!

Feeding Other Foods

If you do offer other foods in addition to the pelleted or extruded diet, you may change the nutrient balance of the diet as a whole, which could be problematic. This only becomes a serious problem if you are adding in seeds or nuts. As previously stated, parrots will eat high fat foods in preference to formulated foods. The best practice is to reserve any treats, whether seeds or nuts or cheese, for use in reinforcing behaviors that you have asked the parrot to do.

If you supplement with fruits and vegetables, you are less likely to upset the total nutrient balance of the diet. These foods are high in water content, so even if they make up a high proportion of dietary weight, they have a relatively small influence on the balance of nutrients supplied by dry pellets or extrusions that contain much less water.  (Brilling Hill, Inc. 1996)

Veterinarians generally recommend that formulated foods make up between 50% and 80% of what is consumed. My best advice is to consult your own veterinarian as to what brand and amount to feed.

A Few Cautions

If pursuing a diet change, please weigh your parrot regularly to guard against weight loss. This is easier than trying to figure out what the parrot is actually eating. (An exception to this would be if your veterinarian has recommended weight loss for your parrot and is monitoring your progress with this.) Otherwise, weigh your parrot once or twice a week. You can use a good-quality kitchen scale. Alternatively there are many websites that sell scales with perches.

You should also be monitoring the droppings as an added precaution. What goes in must come out. If you have more than one bird in the cage, please also increase the number of food dishes. You should eliminate any competition for food as the diet conversion is completed.

Sources:

Brue, R. (1997) Nutrition. In: D. Zantop, abridged edition, Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing, Pages 23-46.

Brilling Hill, Inc. for Veterinary Practice Publishing Company. 1996. Nutrition of Psittacines (Parrot Family.) [online] Available at: https://www.marionzoological.com/docs/NutritionPsittacines-1009.pdf

Dr. Sharman M. Hoppes, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds.

Clark, P. Dr. Jamie Lindstrom (2010) Telephone interview: The Link Between Diet and Behavior.

 Desborough, L.  (2014) Toe-tapping in Eclectus Parrots. [online] Available at: https://eclectusparrotcentre.com/contact/toe-tapping

Molokwu, M and Nilsson, J and Olsson, O. (2011) Diet Selection in Birds: trade-off between energetic content and digestibility of seeds. Oxford University Press for the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. [online] Available at: https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/22/3/639/269921

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines

Dr. Susan Orosz, DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.

Dr. Susan Orosz, DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. Date unknown. Avian Nutrition Revisited: Clinical Perspectives. Pet Birds by Lafeber Co. [online] Available at: https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/avian-nutrition-revisited-clinical-perspectives

Dr. Tracey Ritzman, DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. [online] Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lighting Needs: Could Your Parrot Be UV Deficient?

I have a Double Yellow-headed Amazon named Harpo who is 20 years old. A couple of friends came to visit recently and exclaimed over his appearance.  They too have an Amazon, but report that her coloring isn’t nearly as vibrant. Harpo is stunningly bright and his coloring is vivid.

Harpo
Harpo Under Normal Room Lighting

I could only point to Harpo’s time regularly spent outdoors in my aviary as the factor that creates that difference. I have always stressed the importance of providing an outdoor aviary for parrots, but my friends’ reactions decided me that I should take another pass at delivering this message.

The information that parrots need specialized indoor lighting or natural sunshine is not new.  Full spectrum (FS) bulbs have been recommended for years. But… does full spectrum lighting really meet all of our parrots’ needs?  I have attempted below to provide a thoughtful discussion of not only why birds need exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, but the different options for providing this. Hopefully, this information will not only protect your parrots’ health, but provide valuable help to organize your efforts to provide adequate lighting in a cost vs. benefit manner.

Why Is Natural Light Important to Birds?

The term natural light is often used when discussing light quality. Natural light is composed of a broad spectrum that includes ultraviolet (UV) rays. The normal lighting in our homes cannot be defined as natural lighting for the purposes of this discussion.

Our companion parrots specifically need the ultraviolet portion of natural light for three reasons: (1) to promote vitamin D synthesis and absorption, (2) to prevent diseases directly related to UV deficiency, and (3) to promote overall well-being and quality of life. (Becker 2014)

UV Light, Vitamin D, and Parrots

Both parrots and humans need adequate amounts of vitamin D to aid in nutrient absorption and facilitate metabolic processes. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. If a parrot develops a vitamin D deficiency, she will also suffer over time from a calcium deficiency. This can result in egg-binding, soft-shelled eggs, bone fractures and seizures.

Adequate calcium levels are also necessary for maintaining normal function of the heart, muscles and nerves. (Ritchie, Branson and Harrison, Greg 1997) African grey parrots are prone to hypocalcemia (low calcium levels). However increasingly, this “calcium deficiency” is thought to be the result of low vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D deficiencies been implicated in the avian disease known as “stargazing.” They are also thought to be involved in Conure Bleeding Syndrome and in some types of cancer. (Becker 2014)

Three Options for Vitamin D

The precursors to the more active form of vitamin D3 can be obtained from food. Certain foods are better sources than others. However, dietary sources may not be the most efficient way for parrots to get enough vitamin D3.

We don’t know how well parrots absorb this nutrient from their diet.  This is because they have evolved an amazing ability to synthesize this vitamin through exposure to natural sunlight. It is possible that they may have a decreased ability to absorb vitamin D from their diet, due to this ability. There is much to be discovered here and to date there have been no species-specific needs established.

Most parrot species have an uropygial gland located at the base of the tail.  Referred to as the “preen” gland, it exudes a fatty, waxy substance. (In Amazon parrots and some macaws this gland is absent; it is believed that these species get vitamin D from skin exposure.)

Secretions from this gland contain a compound that produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. As a parrot preens under light from a source of UV rays, she ingests the vitamin D that she’s been creating while preening.  This compound is then converted by the liver to the more usable form, Vitamin D3.

Parrots also absorb vitamin D through the eyes. (Becker 2014) Humans’ eyes filter out UV light, but parrots’ eyes do not. A parrot’s eyes will absorb red, green and blue light, but also UV light. Birds also have an additional structure around the retina, called the Harderian gland. This aids in the absorption of UV light into the retina.

Moreover, this gland communicates with the pineal and pituitary glands to help regulate breathing, molting, day and night cycles and, in some cases migration. (Becker 2014) Since a parrot’s metabolism and overall health are regulated by the pineal and pituitary glands, it is essential that parrots have adequate access to UV light on a regular basis. We cannot assume that dietary sources are sufficient.

Quality of Life

While we have good documentation regarding the health benefits of FS light, we have little information as to how it impacts other factors relating to quality of life. This is obviously difficult to document through research. We must rely on anecdotal information from those who provide lighting to their parrots. Dr. Becker reports that access to ultraviolet light improves the following:

  • Feather damaging behavior
  • Poor feather quality
  • Organ dysfunction
  • Immunologic disorders
  • Poor mood and temperament

I believe the last claim to be absolutely true. I can send five snarky, irritable, bored parrots out into the sunshine in the morning and in the evening, I bring in five relaxed, happy birds. It’s like magic.  Just as we experience greater well-being and relaxation after spending time outdoors, so do our parrots.

It’s A Need, Not a Want

The need to actively provide a specific type of lighting then is not in dispute.  Parrots who do not receive either indoor full spectrum lighting or access to sunlight in an outdoor aviary are at risk for illness and poor quality of life. Formulated diets and the natural lighting in our homes are not enough. “Overall, the benefits of UV light warrant that every companion parrot should receive some exposure.” (Wade 2009)

This brings us then promptly to a discussion of full-spectrum lighting versus natural sunlight. How do we want to provide for our parrots’ light needs?

Full Spectrum Bulbs

 The ultraviolet light spectrum consists of three kinds of light: UVA, UVB and UVC. Birds and reptiles can see UVA wavelengths; we cannot. (Wade, Laura 2009) The UVA portion assists parrots when selecting mates and identifying ripe foods. It is the UVB portion that helps them metabolize vitamin D. UVC is filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere, so is not a concern.  Light Spectrum Better

Windows and fine mesh screening filter out the UVB portion of the ultraviolet spectrum. Thus, sunlight that comes in through a window does not protect your parrot’s health. (Windows do not filter out the UVA rays, which is why your carpets will still bleach over time when sunlight hits them through a window.)

If you are thinking about providing FS lighting, there are six things you must know. Few people really have the facts about full spectrum lighting. There is a great deal of misinformation in print, as well as a lack of information provided by the industry who sells these bulbs. Most of the information in print was extrapolated from use with reptiles, which is inappropriate.  Reptiles and birds have different lighting and dietary needs. (Thrush 1999) This is what you need to know:

#1: The words full spectrum create confusion. This description can be used by manufacturers to advertise bulbs even if they do not emit UV rays. In these products, the term full spectrum merely means that the range of light emitted is visible to the human eye. They may emit UVA rays, but not the UVB that your bird needs. You must purchase a specialty bulb manufactured just for birds.

#2: The UVB rays emitted from even the specialty lights are much weaker than the total component of visible light that they produce. (Thrush 1999) It does not travel as far from the lamp as the visible rays do. Thus, most recommendations call for placement of the bulb as close to the parrot as possible without resulting in corneal damage or burning of the skin.

A typical recommendation is as close as 6 inches from the parrot’s head and no further than 12 to 18 inches away. This means that to get adequate exposure, your  parrot has to sit directly under the bulb. If he spends much time on the bottom of his cage foraging or away from the cage, he is not benefiting from the UVB rays the bulb produces.

#3: Birds have much thinner skin than do mammals.  Their corneas also are thinner. This is why they are more sensitive to UV light. This puts them at risk for developing corneal inflammation if UV bulbs are used incorrectly or have an output that exceeds recommendations.

Such a case was documented in a Meyer’s parrot. Testing of the bulb in this case revealed very high levels of quite low UVB light emitted. Another documented case involved “skin burning” in an African grey after the initial introduction of a new UV bulb. According to Dr. Wade, “…increased damage from high intensity, low-wavelength UV light may increase the risk of cancer and cataracts over time.” (Wade 2009)

#4: Since UV lighting has become so popular for parrots, there has been a rapid increase in the manufacturing of these and the types that are available.  Unfortunately, there are no industry standards in place. Dr. Wade has done extensive testing of available bulbs and has found a large variance in emissions.

She recommends either the Arcadia Bird Lamp linear tube or the Duro-Test Vita-Lite linear tube for low UVB needs.  Parrots who might benefit from higher emissions include those eating a seed diet, those who don’t get any natural sunlight, or that are laying eggs.  For these parrots, she recommends using either the ZooMed Reptisun 5.0 linear tube or the Hagen ExoTerra Reptiglo 5.0 linear tube. (Wade 2009)

She specifies linear tubes as best for birds if UV light is provided during the winter months. During the warmer months, she urges caregivers to provide their birds with 20 to 30 minutes of unfiltered sun exposure two to three times each week.

#5: The output of UV light from your full spectrum bulb will decrease over time as it ages. We cannot depend upon manufacturers’ statements regarding lamp life; these merely reflect the time at which we might expect the bulb to stop working.

It is phosphors within these bulbs that produce the light rays. The phosphors that produce the UV rays are different than those that produce the visible light. Those that produce the UV light degrade at a much faster rate. According to Thrush, after 3000 hours of operation the levels of UVB emitted from the lamp will have decreased by 20 percent. Therefore, full-spectrum bulbs should be replaced every 6 months, even if the output of visible light hasn’t changed. (Wade 2009)

#6: FS bulbs are florescent bulbs and are rated as to their Color Rendering Index (CRI). This CRI rating reflects the bulb’s ability to make colors appear and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. Natural sunlight at noon has a CRI of 100. Most indoor lighting has a CRI in the 60s or 70s. Even some FS bulbs will have a CRI as low as 85. For correct color perception, parrots need a CRI higher than 90.  This is yet one more factor to consider when choosing a bulb.

The CRI also reflects the speed at which the light is emitted. Not only do birds see a larger portion of the color spectrum than we do, they are able to see at a faster speed. Light is emitted in wavelengths. When the speed of light is too slow, parrots will not perceive it as continuous light.  They will see a flicker.  This can create visual disturbances and is another reason to purchase a bulb with a CRI of 90 or higher.

To summarize, if we are going to use full spectrum bulbs we must (1) choose carefully giving thought to type and CRI rating, (2) place them no further than 12 to 18 inches from the parrot, and (3) replace them every 6 months. While most veterinarians recommend using full spectrum bulbs at least during the winter months, cautions exist and some question whether FS lighting could diminish quality of life outside of health concerns.

Dr. Becker reminds us: “Nothing man-made can ever completely replace the health benefits nature provides in clean, fresh air and sunlight.” Dr. Wade describes natural, unfiltered sunlight as “ideal.” Thrush is more direct: “The author invites the reader to take a fluorescent lamp assembly and sit with it about a foot or two away from his/her face for twelve hours and then assess if they believe this to be a pleasant experience.”

The Outdoor Aviary and Other Options

If these facts about FS lighting cause you to reconsider its use, an outdoor aviary is the ideal. Please don’t disregard this as impossible before considering all the facts. The investment in an aviary will produce a lifetime of benefits to you and your birds.

Every individual who has purchased an aviary upon my recommendation has come back to me with gratitude. Wendy describes her aviary as “The most important tool besides the Kings 506 we have to successfully keep Georgie Pink Superstar. It was critical in bringing along Alison when she arrived. I will never forget her first day in the aviary. Her face in the sun reflected absolute joy. Additionally, as a caregiver trying to provide for large cockatoos, it keeps my sanity at times.”

David says: “I am very happy that I was encouraged to have an outdoor aviary–enough to move it halfway across the continent! Parrots receive natural full spectrum lighting. They can see other birds and outdoor phenomena safely. They feel the wind and weather in their feathers and across their bodies, and are able to exercise in a different way. It’s a different sort of mental and physical activity.”

Providing an aviary is a “win” for all. Parrots enjoy their birthright – sunshine, rain, wind and the stimulation of that combination. They move around more. They enjoy bathing in the rain. For further enrichment, an aviary can be planted with vegetables, flowers and herbs for foraging.

ParrotAndFlowers Aviary.KrisPorter
Photo by Kris Porter

Time spent in an outdoor aviary will also do wonders to calm down a “hormonal” parrot and I believe that recovery from feather damaging behavior may depend in some cases upon exposure to sunlight.

The benefit to the humans in the house is just as significant. Parrots have large personalities and it can be nice to have a short break from them. If the aviary is constructed well, supervision of the parrot(s) is not necessary after a period of introduction.  A well-constructed aviary will provide adequate safety, even in your absence.

If you are convinced, your options will be to build from scratch or purchase a pre-fabricated aviary. I strongly encourage you to choose the latter. For safety from predators, your aviary should be constructed of galvanized wire that is at least 14 gauge (12 is better) and has a spacing of ½-inch by 3 inches.  Having done it, I can tell you that working with this wire is no party. Further, if you construct an aviary yourself, you won’t be able to take it when you leave.

There are many sources for pre-fabricated aviaries. One company I recommend is Corners Limited. Presently, they have a wait time of 6 to 8 weeks. However, the quality of these aviaries is excellent. They are easy to set up, attractive, and can be moved. They can be powder coated if you are concerned about the safety of galvanized wire.

Aviary between log home and guest house
One of Wendy’s Three CL Aviaries

If an aviary is absolutely out of the question, other options exist.  You can provide another parrot cage on a deck or other place of safety. However, the bar spacing of most will pose a danger if raptors or other predators are nearby. Constant supervision is necessary.

Another option is the Cageoller.  This is essentially a cage on wheels that can be taken for walks or simply moved outdoors.  Again, supervision is necessary.

If we provide an aviary or other safe option for getting our bird outdoors, we don’t have to concern ourselves with all the uncertainties that can accompany the use of full-spectrum bulbs.  We can rely on our parrot’s inner wisdom to limit their time in the sun, which they will do. It is absolutely the best option for your parrots.

Sources cited:

Ritchie DVM, Branson and Greg and Linda Harrison. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing, Inc., 1997 Abridged Edition.

Wade DVM, ABVP, Laura. “Ultraviolet Lighting for Companion Birds: Benefits & Risks. 2009. http://www.buffalobirdnerd.com/clients/8963/documents/UVlightingBirds.pdf

Becker DVM, Karen. “The Essential Nutrient Your Pet Bird Could Be Lacking.” The Huffington Post. 2014. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-karen-becker/pet-bird-health_b_4017365.html

https://www.sageglass.com/sites/default/files/the_hidden_benefits_of_natural_light.pdf

https://www.petcha.com/light-health-for-pet-birds

https://bestfriends.org/resources/lighting-and-bird-health-sunlight-and-full-spectrum-lighting-considerations

 

 

The Real Truth: Sleep Needs in Parrots

“Parrots need between 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night!” How often have you heard this? In researching this subject, I found this statement repeated ad infinitum on a great many websites with the exact wording I have copied here.

photo-1511064688603-1fd322f5fd3d

Questioning Standard Dogma

I question the validity of this statement. First, it is a rather broad generalization to apply to such a diverse group of species. Second, I am “generalization averse” when it comes to parrots. Third, it has always seemed to me that the issues of day length and the need for sleep get confused in most discussions, clouding the issues. Finally, I have lived with larger parrots now for close to 30 years and have never provided 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. My parrots have never been ill nor have they demonstrated behavior problems that could be traced back to inadequate rest.

The reason most often given for this professed need is that most parrot species originate from equatorial regions where there are roughly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness in a 24-hour period.  Further, observers of parrots in the wild report that they begin to roost for the night shortly after the sun goes down. Therefore, the argument derives that parrots must need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night. But, is this a logical argument?world-atlas-map-longitude-latitude-refrence-world-map-by-atlas-new-world-atlas-maps-besttabletfor-me-within-of-world-atlas-map-longitude-latitude_LI

First, if you examine a map of the world with latitude lines and the equator clearly marked (in red here), you see that a good many parrot species originate from regions both above and below the equator. For example, Monk (Quaker) Parakeets were originally identified in regions in Argentina which are located at 45 degrees below the equator, roughly half way between the equator and the South Pole (Forshaw 1977, 442).

Second, it has been noted publicly by those who have traveled extensively and are familiar with parrots that it is neither dark nor quiet in the wild. The moon illuminates the night sky to some degree on most nights and nocturnal animals move about as well. This would seem to negate the oft-repeated advice that parrots need complete dark and quiet for restful sleep.

I also found it repeatedly stated that parrots will be “cranky and impatient,” i.e quicker to bite, if they get less sleep than has been advised. (Womach, 2012).  The assumption is that the parrot is “cranky” because he is not getting enough sleep.  If we tend to be cranky from lack of sleep, then this must be true for parrots as well. However, humans and parrots are vastly different organisms. If a parrot is “cranky” and non-compliant, it’s more likely to reflect a lack of training, rather than fatigue.  A well-trained parrot will step up and respond to other cues whether tired or not.

Science-Based Evidence About Sleep in Birds

Looking beyond the surface here, fascinating science-based information about sleep in birds can be found that informs this discussion. First, it appears that birds do not maintain active sleep for extended periods. As noted in the Handbook of Bird Biology, “… unlike most mammals, active sleep periods are short in birds, and in some species sleep is interrupted frequently to permit vigilance against potential predators.” (Lovette 2016, 254)

Further, avian sleep research has proven that all birds and some aquatic mammals like dolphins have the ability to sleep with only one half of their brain at a time. “The visual systems of birds are crossed in relation to the brain halves; that is, neurons from each eye go to the opposite side of the brain. By alternating the sleeping half of the brain throughout the night, these birds can still be watching out for predators with one eye always open, while still getting the required brain rest and perhaps dreaming.” (Lovette 2016, 254)  Birds have evolved this sleep system for avoiding predation. This sheds significant doubt on the standard advice that they must be in a dark environment without interruptions in order to sleep well.

Research has also now proven that migratory birds can sleep while flying. Alpine Swifts can remain airborne for 200 days at a time, suggesting that all vital physiological processes, including sleep, can be achieved in flight. Further, sleep is severely restricted at times in some species during migration and breeding. (Rattenborg et al, 2016)

Roosting vs. Sleeping

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology discusses roosting and sleeping as two separate activities, although one does lead to the other. “All birds sleep and all birds roost. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but in fact they have rather different meanings.” When a bird has “gone to roost” this simply means that he has moved to the place where grey parrot on perchhe will sleep.  Once there, he may engage in a variety of behaviors including preening, resting without sleeping, or engaging socially with his flock members.

It is roost entry and departure that correspond most directly with day length; the sleep period seems less so. (Brooke and Birkhead 1991, 145). “Most birds spend about eight hours out of every 24 hour cycle asleep, although there is great variability between species in the amount of sleep and even within species there may be a large seasonal variation.” (Brooke and Birkhead 1991, 148). This information suggests that, while parrots may roost for a period roughly equivalent to the length of darkness, they may not necessarily be sleeping throughout this period.

Excessive Sleep a Risk Factor for Feather Damaging Behavior in Greys

Another interesting finding comes from a completely different source. A study was done in the United Kingdom a few years ago which sought to identify risk factors for feather damaging behavior in African grey parrots and cockatoos. Two risk factors for the population of African greys studied were (1) increasing length of ownership and (2) increasing hours of sleep. “Having ≥ 12 hours of dark, quiet, uninterrupted sleep per night increased the odds of feather plucking in African Grey parrots by more than 7 times in the multivariable model compared with those that had < 8 hours sleep per night.” (Jayson et al, 2014, 250-257)

A last piece of information concerns slow-wave sleep (SWS) and non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Humans and birds alike experience both SWS and REM sleep. However, while episodes of REM sleep in mammals can be many minutes in duration, avian REM sleep periods rarely exceed 10 seconds and occur hundreds of times per day. (Lesku and Rattenborg 2014)

Should We Provide a Roosting Experience?

Okay…it’s time for some common sense.  We have the issues of roosting, sleeping and day length to examine to try to get a bit closer to identifying what parrots really need. I am especially interested in the concept of roosting; until now this has been given little attention.

The ability to roost prior to sleep could be very important to parrots.  It is a behavior I observe daily in my own flock. Some of my parrot-keeping practices could be considered unconventional.  For instance, I don’t put all of my parrots in cages at night.  The Moluccan sleeps in his cage because he’s too destructive to be out.  However, my four African greys and Amazon have all chosen individual perches outside of their cages for sleeping.  Each evening, they go to roost on these perches about an hour before they know that lights will go out. They preen and generally settle down, but do not go to sleep. It seems to be a deeply satisfying experience for them, one that prepares them for sleep.

We can only guess at the function of this roosting pattern in the wild. Possibly it helps to solidify flock bonds. It may afford the bird a chance to examine the surroundings for a period before deciding that it’s safe to go to sleep. Perhaps someday we will know. However, for now, we should question the wisdom of sleep cages and how they are used.

This practice of having a second small cage in another room that can be completely dark is quite popular. But, if we take an alert, wakeful parrot, and put him into a small cage and then immediately into a dark room, are we robbing him of this roosting time?  Is roosting prior to sleep important for parrots?  Is this something we should provide for? We don’t know. However, this information should at least lead us to broaden our thinking.

Sleep Needs for Parrots

As to sleep, all of the scientific information above sheds doubt on the fact that all parrots must have 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. The truth is we don’t really know how many hours of sleep each parrot species or individual needs.

Perhaps it’s time to remember how much we don’t know about the parrots with whom we live. Familiarity does not necessarily bring knowledge. And it does us all a disservice to repeat unconditional, absolute, explicit statements about their needs that are based solely on thinking rooted in assumption. Further, that statement about sleep has been repeated so often that it has limited our vision. It’s a dead end to further investigation and discussion.

So, what do parrots need when it comes to sleep? “What do they need for best physical and mental health?”

Strive for Consistency and Predictability

In my experience, they need consistency and predictability. Veterinarian Fern Van Sant agrees: “Getting birds’ day-night schedules on a consistent schedule is more important than the amount of sleep they receive.” “Whether you can give your birds nine or 12 hours of sleep each night, make sure it’s the same each night. If a bird gets eight hours one night, 12 another and 10 the following, its bio-rhythms will ‘get out of whack,’ setting it up for behavioral and health problems.” (Gordon, Rose 2018)

Beyond that, we should look to the parrot to tell us about his needs.  We can assume that young, very old or sick parrots may need more sleep than others, but careful observation of most parrots will give us some clues. This information must then be balanced with our own needs.  Social balance in the home will only be achieved if the needs of all are considered.

Therefore, if you don’t get home until 6 pm and you have religiously been putting your parrot to bed in a sleep cage at 6:30 so that he can get that recommended period of sleep, consider allowing him to stay up later.  His social needs may very well be greater than his need for 12 hours of sleep a night.

If your parrot resists when you try to put him to bed, a similar reformulation of schedule may be needed.  On the other hand, if you allow your parrot to stay up until 11:00 pm every night and you have to wake him to put him to bed, he may need an earlier bedtime. If your parrot chews his feathers more at night, look to the sleep schedule.  If he is awake at 6:00 am because a little bit of light comes into his room and you don’t get him up until 8:00 am, that two-hour period is prime feather damaging time.

If you have been tip-toeing around at night or depriving yourself of trips to the refrigerator in fear of waking your parrot, you can stop that right now. Obviously, parrots have evolved systems for incorporating interruptions like that into their ability to get adequate rest.

The Impact of Day Length

Last, we have the issue of day length. We don’t know what the physiological effect of day length is on sleep, behavior and biological rhythms. However, I have observed over the years that parrots who live indoors do still have a very real relationship with the outdoors. It stands to reason that day length may have a significant impact upon them.

It makes sense to me, as so many have advised, that it would be optimal to create for our parrots a day length that mimics that of their place of origin.  We could research both where our parrot species came from and the amount of day light present there.  Then, we could use a sleep cage in a room with black-out shades to replicate this. However, is this really needed?  We always tout the adaptability and flexibility of parrots. On this issue, I will default to the old adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

However, we do know that increasing or decreasing day length seems to be a trigger for the production of reproductive hormones.  New World parrots like Amazons, macaws, and Pionus often display behavior in the spring described as “hormonal.” On the other hand, many African greys and cockatoos display this behavior first as the days grow shorter. Given this, it may very well make sense to artificially decrease day length in an Amazon or other New World parrot in order to get egg-laying or extreme aggression under control. This is often recommended by avian veterinarians.  In my experience, this does not work with the Old World species, such as greys and cockatoos.

In Conclusion

In summary, if the sleeping arrangements you have devised for your parrot are working well, it’s probably best to leave them alone. However, if they do not meet your needs, or are causing problems, feel free to experiment based upon the information above. Find Sleeping parrot 2what works for both you and your parrot. Rather than applying arbitrary rules, look to your parrot to discover what he needs. Consider altering day length if there is a strong need to do so. Use your common sense!

 Sources Cited:

  1. Forshaw, Joseph. Parrots of the World. Neptune: T.F.H Publications, 1977.
  2. “How Much Sleep Does My Parrot Need.” Fixing Your Parrot’s Problems. 15 Sept 2012. http://www.birdtricks.com/blog/how-much-sleep-does-my-parrot-need
  3. Lovette, Irby and John Fitzpatrick. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.
  4. Rattenborg et al. Evidence that Birds Sleep in Mid-flight.” Nature Communications, 3 Aug 2016. < https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12468&gt;
  5. Brooke, Michael and Tim Birkhead. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  6. Jayson, Stephanie, David Williams, and James L.N. Wood. “Prevalence and Risk Factors of Feather Plucking in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus and Psittacus erithacus timneh) and Cockatoos (Cacatua spp.)” Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 23 (2014), pp 250-257.
  7. Gordon, Rose. “The Science of Parrot Sleep.” https://www.petcha.com/the-science-of-parrot-sleep
  8. Lesku, John and Niels Rattenborg. “Avian Sleep.” Current Biology.< https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.005>

 

 

Perching the Parrot Cage and Beyond

You might be saying to yourself, “PerchBudgieing the cage!  That’s old news….”  Hang on a minute!  The way you perch your parrot’s cage and the types of perches you choose can make or break his life experience. After all, perches are your parrot’s furniture.  They must be comfortable, offer variety and be placed effectively.

Have you ever looked at your parrot’s feet?  They have evolved this zygodactyl toe david-clode-461745-unsplasharrangement for better grasping and climbing. Beyond that, each toe may have as many as six joints, which allows them great dexterity when it comes to holding onto the smallest of objects. Many also use their feet like hands when eating. Since most companion parrots don’t do a lot of flying, they are on their feet about 99% of the time. We must use care when providing a  physical environment.

There is an art to perching a parrot’s cage and a lot of people get it wrong, which is why I chose this topic. I ask for a photo of the cage when I do a consultation. You would be surprised at how frequently obvious things get missed, like food dishes without a perch nearby for access.

Perching Principles

The principles are the same whether you have a baby parrot, a budgerigar, an African Grey or a Hyacinth macaw.

  • A variety of perches should be provided in the cage with different materials and different diameters. The standard advice is that perches must be of such a diameter that the bird’s toes can go at least half-way around the perch. In fact, many birds enjoy smaller perches for variety. If you watch parrots fly outdoors, they often choose to land on very small branches that offer a lot of movement.
  • Perches should be placed thoughtfully so that they facilitate maintenance behaviors such as foraging and preening.
  • Parrots should be offered the opportunity to perch up high daily for best mental health. To a parrot, height spells safety.

Perch Types for the Cage

Your parrot will benefit from having a wide variety of perches from which to choose.  Consider my somewhat biased review below.

  • Platform perches or shelf perches – occasionally parrots like to perch with their toes Platformperchextended. For any parrot with a physical disability of the legs or feet, these are essential and will contribute greatly to quality of life.
  • Rope perches provide a softer surface and can help to strengthen leg muscles, since they move a bit as the parrot walks along. If you do use rope perches and your parrot chews on them, make sure to keep the strings cut short so that toes can’t get trapped.
  • Heated (Thermo™) perches can be a comfort to a parrot with arthritis or when cold temperatures at night are a concern. At present there is a controversy as to the safety of these. It has been reported that they may generate an electromagnetic field (EMF) that could affect the parrot’s health. The EPA does appear to consider the danger of EMFs to be real. I have no idea if they might be dangerous or not, but I offer this information to trigger your own research since they can be nice to have.

    Heated perch
    Thermo Perch
  • Pedicure perches – an almost infinite variety are now available. I continue to recommend the Parrotopia Sandy Perch due to its unique design. Actual branches with all of their irregularities are used in the production. This creates much greater likelihood that the nails will come into contact with the perch. I have had them in my cages for the past 20 years and have never had to trim any parrot’s nails. Parrots also love them for cleaning their beaks. It is important to note that veterinarians have voiced concern that perches of this type could cause abrasions on the bottom of the feet.  I have not found this to be the case with the Sandy Perch. No matter what perches you provide, it’s best to examine the bottom of your parrot’s feet on a regular basis for possible areas of soreness.
  • Safe woods – if you’re tempted to create your own perches from plant materials, make sure you know what type of wood you are gathering and that it is safe. Willow and eucalyptus are favored by parrots. Lot of folks recommend washing and bleaching (or baking at a low temperature in the oven) any wood you bring in from the outdoors. I’ve never thought this necessary, but if you want to err on the cautious side that type of treatment should kill anything living that remains on the wood. Taking wood from the natural environment can provide wonderful perching options, to which the little budgie above will attest.
  • Dowels – possibly the least desirable type for any bird.
  • Sleeping huts – the one perch I do not like to see in cages. The tops of these tend to get filthy quite quickly. Parrots don’t need them; they are sold more for the concerned owner. Last, if the parrot spends time in them during the day, they can increase territorial behavior around the cage since they can be construed by the parrot as a potential nest cavity, especially if there is a pair bond present with the owner.

Perch Placement

Placing perches correctly requires us to examine the types of activities the parrot performs. We then position the perches to best facilitate those. I see little point in placing perches in the lower third of the cage.  If you have perches down low, ask yourself if your parrot uses them and if they are covered with poop. If he doesn’t and they are, take them out, scrub them up, and replace them in a more functional location.

Most cages for medium to large parrots come with a long perch that extends from one side to the other at the level of the food dish holders. I like that configuration since it gives the parrot an easy path to traverse the cage from side to side.

In addition, consider placing at that same level shorter bolt-on natural wood perches in front of the food dishes so that they extend from the front of the cage toward the back.  If you did, your parrot could face his food dish as he dined! These natural wood perches are widely available and are usually between 8 and 12 inches long.

Additional perches should be placed in the upper third of the cage where your parrot will prefer to be most of the time. If you add one, make sure he’s got enough head room. Then hang toys in places where he can reach them easily from those upper perches. I’m not a fan of swings in cages since they take up so much room.  If you do have one, make sure it’s in the very center so that he doesn’t hit the sides as he swings.

After you re-perch that cage with the suggestions above, wait a day and make sure that the perches aren’t collecting poop and there isn’t poop in any food dish.

Alternate Perches

Another mantra of mine: Parrots need to go places. A single cage is not enough. For best quality of life, they need to

Wingdow
The Wingdow

have a variety of perches around the house. I think a perch in every room where the parrot spends time is not unreasonable. If you have a perch in every room, you might be more inclined to take your parrot with you when you travel around the house, which would be good for him. Further, if you have a perch in every room, he can perch independently rather than staying on your shoulder. It’s better for him and you. Options are free-standing play-gyms, hanging perches, table-top perches and the Wingdow. Consider also getting one very simple stand for parrot training sessions.

It’s tough these days to find a free-standing playstand that is fully functional. Most are so simple in design that the bird simply sits in one place at the top.  You can spend a whole lot of money for a stand that looks like it offers enough variety, only to find that your parrot doesn’t want to climb downward on all those rungs. A good parrot stand will, through its engineering, encourage movement, have a place for food dishes, and at least one toy hanger. Don’t cut corners here; you get what you pay for in this case.

I love hanging perches. I’m talking about the ones that will hang from your ceiling. Parrots feel safe up high, so it’s important to offer them this opportunity. For flighted parrots, they are essential. A simple one that most parrots love is the coiled rope perch. There are many other great GetAGripdesigns available as well. One very unique design is the Get-A-Grip climbing net. If you have parrots who fly, hanging perches will go a long way towards keeping them off the tops of your doors and bookcases.

Having a couple of table-top perches is nice too if your bird likes to hang out with you while you cook or put your make-up on. For small to medium parrots, a natural wicker basket works nicely. These are plentiful at Goodwill Stores. Get one with a wide enough base that it won’t tip over due to your parrot’s weight and with a handle that is of a good perching diameter. You can move this from room to room and fill the base with a foraging activity or simply a few foot toys.

If your parrot showers with you, he needs a perch in there too. Most are simple in design and rely on suction cups to stay in place. This can be a problem if your tile shower has an uneven surface.  One solution is to build your own free-standing perch from PVC. This  can then also double as a training perch. If you do use PVC, make sure to wrap the perch itself with a non-slip material like Vet Wrap or score the surface with a dremel tool.  I found this diagram in Google images. Many thanks to the wonderful sole who contributed this.training stand

Teaching the Perch

As much as I will love you for providing a variety of perches, your parrot may not thank you initially. Many adult parrots are wary of new things and will reject them at first. They may even be afraid of the new perch. This is not the time to decide: “He just doesn’t like it!”

Instead, decide: “Okay, I will need to teach him to like it!”  By following a desensitization and counter-conditioning plan that pairs high value reinforcers with very gradual increases in proximity to the scary perch, you can teach him to enjoy it. Outlining such a plan is not within the scope of this blog post, but this is something with which I could easily help you on a private basis.

Your Thoughts?

I’d love to hear from you.  What perches do you have that you really like?

 

Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

SONY DSC

Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.