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.

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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.

  

 

Avoid the Pair Bond: Social Relationships with Parrots

At the heart of many behavior problems is a social relationship that has taken a wrong turn. Why? Because, despite our best intentions we often misunderstand what parrots really need from us socially. And then, we do the wrong things.

We take all that we know about living with other companion animals and attempt to apply this to life with parrots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Parrots are too different. They are prey animals, not predators. Most are not yet domesticated, while our dogs, cats and bunnies are. A parrot’s social needs are more closely aligned with the wild life than with captive life.

Lessons from the Wild

So, what do parrots really need from us socially? Observations of their wild lives provide valuable clues. They have many different relationships on various levels. They enjoy parallel activities which serve to cement the integrity of the flock. They all forage at the same time, preen at the same time, nap at the same time.

They are also full of trickery. They engage frequently in brief, playful interactions. They steal perches and food from each other. They engage with each other in mid-air. Some species even play physically with each other.

Each parrot also has a relationship with the flock as a whole.  The flock serves as the vehicle for finding food, accessing that food, evading predators and providing a sense of safety. A single parrot away from his flock would likely meet with a swift demise. They understand this instinctively.

Pair Bonds In the Wild

It is important to note that the only time that adult parrots in the wild spend extended periods of time physically close together is when they have formed a pair bond. They are engaged in cementing that pair bond through remaining close by each other, searching for a suitable nest site, excavating that nest and then laying eggs and rearing young.

Pair Bonds in Captivity

I assert that it physical closeness with a companion parrot that serves as a physiological trigger that causes our parrot to form a pair bond with us. This conviction is based upon two decades of anecdotal experience. Petting the parrot down the back and under the wings, having the parrot on the shoulder for extended periods, cuddling at night before bed, allowing the parrot under the covers…all of these activities give the parrot the wrong message – that we are inviting a sexual relationship. But, we certainly don’t want that, right?

What DO We Want?

I know what I want. And, I know what we should all want for a companion parrot. We should want that parrot to be fully independent, well able to entertain himself most of the time…foraging for food and interacting with enrichment. We should not want a parrot who sits on our shoulder or lap all day. That’s not much quality of life for a captive parrot, given the myriad of activities in which they would engage in the wild on a daily basis.

What DO They Want (Need)?

Lessons from the wild indicate that they need a sense of safety and security that the flock provides. What does this mean for us? I hate to break it to all of you who depend upon them, but bird rooms are a really bad idea. They may be convenient for us, but are a source of stress for parrots, making it impossible for them to satisfy their social needs.

Parrot have big personalities and a well-defined sense of territory. It is stressful for larger parrots to live in close proximity to others, especially others of different species. Parrots seem most comfortable with a minimum of about five feet between cages, which is hard to accomplish in the typical bird room.

Parrots of different species, while they may enjoy having other feathered ones around, will not usually form a cohesive flock bond with them. Instead, most parrots consider the humans in the home to be their primary flock. It is with us that they want to enjoy those parallel activities. Thus, the best thing you can do to facilitate a healthy social life for your parrot is to locate his cage in the living area of the home. (A play stand is not good enough.  Sorry….)

Parallel Activities

The importance of parallel activities to a parrot should not be underestimated. While we may imagine that our birds need hours of one on one time with us, that isn’t the case at all! They don’t need much focused time with us. This may be good news to all of you thinking that you may need to give  your parrot up due to your lack of time.

They will satisfy themselves socially by eating when we eat, preening while we ready ourselves for the day, and snoozing while we nap. We don’t have to do anything other than have our parrots in our proximity to satisfy this particular need of theirs. How easy is that?

Brief, Playful Social Interactions

How about the need for brief, playful social interactions? That one is easy to satisfy too. When our parrots are located in our living areas, it comes naturally to interact with them throughout the day in this manner.

Parrots and people have a way of developing little social duets over time. For example, my African Grey, Marko, loves to hang upside down from my hand.  She started that.  Now, I can step her up and give her the cue to flip upside down. Once upright again, she is happy to take a treat and go back to her perch.

Dancing with your parrot is another example. How about playing toss the paper ball for a few minutes? What else can you think of? What does your parrot like to do? Can you turn that into a 60-second game?

Following the Flock

Parrots also need to follow the flock. That means that, when we change rooms, they want to change rooms to accompany us. A flighted parrot will do this on his own. If you live with a clipped parrot, you will need to provide the transport. Think about having a perch in every room. This way, if you are going into another room for an extended period of time, you can bring your parrot with you to perch while you go about your activities.

Other Social Needs

Aside from these very specific social needs, parrots must have a minimum of three to four hours out of the cage each day for a decent quality of life. More is better. This block of time should be divided into two periods, one in the morning and a second later in the day. It is simply too hard on a parrot to only come out of the cage once a day. Such a schedule often contributes to behavior problems. This time out of the cage allows them to make choices, change locations, and engage in those important social activities outlined above.

My Flock

For the past 15 years, I have worked full-time as a veterinary technician while pursuing my behavior consulting career on the weekends. People always ask me how I can possibly care well for eight parrots while doing all that. I have been easily able to meet the social needs of my own parrots because I follow the advice given in this blog. My parrots are happy, undemanding, and keep themselves busy without needing big chunks of my time.

Does a Pair Bond Already Exist?

What if you have already allowed your parrot to form a pair bond with you? How will you even know if a pair bond exists? I can tell you some sure signs:

  • Your parrot hates everyone but you.
  • Your parrot tries to bite your partner when he or she comes close. (Or the parrot bites you under the same circumstances…another fun variation on that theme.)
  • Your parrot tries to masturbate on you when you are holding him.
  • You can’t get the parrot off of your shoulder (and you’re not in the veterinarian’s office).
  • Your parrot frequently wants to preen your hair, eyebrows, or beard.

I can tell you that you don’t want a pair bond with your parrot. Such a bond leads to increased aggression, screaming and feather destructive behavior. For females, it can also lead to chronic egg laying, which puts the parrot at risk for egg binding. Not only is that a life-threatening condition, it generally incurs astronomical vet bills.

Evolving the Pair Bond

A pair bond can be evolved into a more appropriate relationship with consistent effort over time. First, figure out how much time your parrot currently perches on your shoulder, lap or chest. Begin to reduce that systematically by small increments each week. At the same time, immediately stop petting him anywhere but on the head. Keep him out of your bed. Stop the cuddling. (I know…this is hard. Perhaps a cat or a Yorkshire Terrier might be a good addition at this time.)

Replace that physical closeness by beginning some parrot training. Parrots in the wild are constantly problem solving. Their physical environment requires this. In captivity, most parrots are bored.  By doing some training on a daily basis, you accomplish some very important things.

Parrot Training

Learning new behaviors enriches the parrot’s experience to an extent  you can’t imagine. Learning new behaviors in an important form of enrichment. Learning new behaviors tires a parrot out mentally so he has less need to threaten your eardrums with vocalizations.

But, most importantly, training your parrot will serve over time to evolve that pair bond. By placing yourself in the role of teacher/trainer, you encourage the parrot to look to you for guidance and direction, rather than physical love.

Training doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Five minutes once or twice a day is enough. It doesn’t even matter if you skip days. Your parrot will quite easily pick up where you left off in the training.

What to Train?

It’s best to begin your training by teaching a simple behavior like targeting. Not familiar with targeting? Here is an excellent video, created by behavior consultant Stephanie Edlund, to get you started: http://understandingparrots.com/guide-to-target-training-your-parrot.

Summary

Parrots need the following for social satisfaction:

  • Cage located in the living area.
  • The ability to engage in parallel activities.
  • Brief, playful social interactions with you.
  • Three to four hours out of the cage each day.
  • Parrot training with you as the teacher.

Happy training! Happy Socializing! Sent with much love to you all!

`Pam

Loss and Lessons

191When I entered Tani’s bird room, my eyes fell immediately upon Gracie. A female Red-lored Amazon, she sat on a table in a small parakeet cage with a single perch. Tani was a breeder from whom I purchased pellets for my own birds. Gracie had been relinquished to her that morning by a stranger who could no longer keep her.

A Pathetic Sight

She was a pathetic sight. Deformed toes worked hard to balance on the ¼-inch perch. Cholesterol deposits impaired her vision. Her plumage could only be described as “scruffy” at best, indicative of a seed diet and lack of bathing opportunities. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with her,” Tani lamented. My heart overrode my brain and in a split second I said that I would give her a home. That was a decision I never regretted.

Her story was even worse than her appearance. Gracie had begun to bite the owner in her first home and was thrown against the wall, after which she began to have seizures. She was taken to a veterinary clinic to be euthanized. Instead, one of the receptionists agreed to adopt her. Fearful that Gracie might have a seizure that would cause her injury, this well-meaning woman kept her in that 12-inch parakeet cage for several years.

Homecoming

Once home with me, it took some time before Gracie regained enough strength to be able to live in an appropriately sized cage. We gradually moved her up from one cage to another, each larger than the last. She never did try to interact with enrichment much, but she converted easily to a diet of pellets, whole grains, vegetables and a bit of fruit.

Finding a Friend

After several years she and Harpo, my Double-yellow Headed Amazon, formed a strong pair bond. I placed their cages next to each other in my bedroom. Harpo was fully flighted; Gracie never chose to fly despite having full wings. Harpo had the ability to fly anywhere he wanted, but he rarely left Gracie’s side. They seemed happy to sit side by side, cocooned in their affection for each other.

Signs of Illness

A few years ago, Gracie developed symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. Her inability to use her feet with much coordination made it impossible for me to medicate her by mouth with antibiotics. She could not step up and any attempt to place a towel over her caused her to launch herself off her cage in a panic. I medicated her in her drinking water, the only option open to me.

She had several bouts with similar symptoms and would appear to improve with antibiotics. However, the “infection” always came back. Eventually, her breathing became visibly more difficult. During the nights, I would wake to hear her breathing and I observed more tail bobbing, a symptom of labored breathing. My heart grew heavier and my anxiety for both her and Harpo deepened.

What else could be done for her? What if I couldn’t save her? What would Harpo do if he lost her? Would I need to adopt another female Amazon? Was the stress of getting her into a carrier for yet another vet visit worth it?

The Only Option

One night recently, she became dramatically worse, despite the fact that she had been drinking water with Baytril for a few weeks. In the early morning, she fell off of her cage because she was so weak. That decided me.

We took radiographs, which revealed many cloudy “nodules” in her chest. A phone call to the local pathologist was very discouraging. Her suggested rule-outs were either aspergillosis or tuberculosis, neither of which would have been possible to treat, given the limitations Gracie herself posed.

I could only remember the words of a veterinarian with whom I once worked, who had declared the inability to breathe freely as the worst form of suffering. Gracie was euthanized that day, gently and humanely.

Harpo Learns the Truth

I wanted to give Harpo a chance to understand what had happened, so I brought her body home with me that evening. He first viewed her remains from a few feet away. He regarded her with eyes pinning, then came to sit by her body for a couple of minutes. After that, he then moved back to his own cage and never approached her again.

Knowing it was the right thing to do, I had a necropsy performed. To our surprise, Gracie’s struggles to breathe were caused by a large tumor on her thyroid gland.

Three Lessons for Us All: Lesson One

I write this account because losses like this often bring with them some very important lessons. Gracie’s passing has gifted us with three of them. The first concerns the value of necropsy, both to parrot owners and to the veterinary profession. I have always had a necropsy performed on any parrot who dies in my care.

I consider this as critically important for the future health of the other birds in my flock. Should the necropsy reveal a potentially infectious disease, I would have information that could allow me to better protect my existing birds. Further, it could impact future decisions regarding the adoption of others.

There is also value to the veterinary profession. Avian veterinary medicine is still a relatively young discipline and there is much we don’t know about disease processes in parrots. The well-known and invaluable reference “Avian Medicine: Principles and Application” reports that “Thyroid neoplasia (cancer) is rare in birds.” Were we all to embrace the need to contribute to the knowledge we have by committing to necropsy when losses occur, our body of knowledge could grow much more quickly.

In addition to the value of the medical information we receive, necropsy has the potential also to contribute to our own emotional healing. I don’t know what’s worse, losing a parrot suddenly or making the decision to euthanize. We suffer and we grieve in a manner that only one who has also lost a bird can understand.

And, we feel guilty. We torture ourselves with the idea that perhaps it was somehow our fault. In Gracie’s case, her diagnosis came as a huge relief. There was nothing I could have done to save her and I prevented her further suffering by making the courageous decision to end it. I was able to take myself off the “guilty hook.” My sense of loss was enough to deal with.

Lesson Two

Gracie’s second lesson for us is critical to our social relationships with our parrots. Too many times we assume that we know what our parrots are feeling and experiencing. We observe behavior and interpret this in most cases by seizing upon the first explanation that occurs to us. In fact, most of the consultations I do for behavior problems have as an element the very wrong assumptions the owners have made about their bird.

I had assumed that Harpo would be completely lost without Gracie. He would now live as a single Amazon in a household full of African Greys. How would he manage? Would they bully him now that he as alone? How could I keep him happy, now that he would be mostly alone in the bedroom. I considered  looking for another Amazon to keep him company, even though I don’t really want to add another parrot to my household.

Harpo’s behavior since Gracie’s passing has been eye-opening. He never spends time in the bedroom anymore. He flies frequently, exploring the environment and interacting with enrichment. He talks more often. He gets along with the greys well.

Had Gracie been cramping his style? Did his loyalty to her keep him tied to his cage in the bedroom when he really wished to be hanging out in the living room? We will never know and it doesn’t really matter.

The important lesson here is that we should never be sure that we understand what our parrots want or need. We should never believe that we know how they feel. The most we can do is to observe their body language carefully and do our best to make informed decisions based upon what they tell us. Harpo has shown me clearly that another Amazon isn’t necessary at this time.

Lesson Three

Gracie’s last lesson has to do with resilience. The dictionary definition of resilience is, “The ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Both Gracie and Harpo fit that description and I believe that most parrots do. Despite Gracie’s early difficulties, she recovered to the extent that she was able and lived a full, happy life. She was approximately 25 years old when she died.

Harpo now has the chance to expand his own horizons. He’s getting a lot more exercise and is now able to visit the outdoor aviary for sunshine and fresh air. He was previously reluctant to do so because it required leaving Gracie’s side. Harpo is tough and he will be just fine as he relies upon his own resources to make sense of his new reality and opportunity.

`Pam