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.

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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!

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>