Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots

As we begin to search for favorite soup recipes and pull out that beloved afghan, our parrots also change their behavior in response to colder weather and darker days. My own become a bit more obsessed with getting into the bathroom or being on the floor somewhere. I may need to fish one of them out of the closet occasionally.

Today I want to say a few more words about cavity seeking. I did cover this topic in my blog post Companion Parrots and Reproductive Hormones, but I think that a single focus on this topic is worthy. At this time of year especially, we can begin to see an increase in this behavior, which can be both puzzling and aggravating.

What is cavity seeking? I get that question a lot, usually right after I use the term as if everyone knows what it means.

When I did a Google search for these words, I got a lot of information about oral cavities. So, I had to  wonder…am I the only one using this term to describe a particular aspect of parrot behavior? I highly doubt it.  However, while the behavior is as common as parrots vocalizing loudly, the name for this behavior and it’s ramifications are not well-recognized.

What Is Cavity Seeking?

Cavity seeking is behavior sexually mature companion parrots attempt to pursue with the goal of establishing a potential nesting spot (in their perception at least). This appears to be a very strong drive and may occur independently from the presence of any perceived “mate,” although the two usually go hand in hand.

It is typically regarded as cute, slightly quixotic, and harmless. It can also be reinforcing for us when parrots engage in cavity seeking because it keeps them occupied for long periods of time, leaving us free to pursue our own tasks without worrying about the need to provide enrichment.

The Many Faces of Cavity Seeking

What does cavity seeking look like?

The answers to this are extremely diverse, which is why I want to focus exclusively on this topic today. The fact that it so often goes unrecognized is a problem, since it so often leads to an increase in the production of reproductive hormones, which in turn results in resource guarding (territorial aggression), increased vocalizations, and can set the stage for feather damaging behavior (FDB).

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a photo of one of Chris Shank’s cockatoos. It looks like innocent play, doesn’t it? It’s not. This bird is cavity seeking – checking out a small, dark space even when he has the entire property to explore, being a free-flighted parrot. This same cockatoo often jumps into Chris’ washing machine if he happens to be indoors and the lid is open .

One day, some years ago, we received an urgent visit from the pastor of a local church. One of Chris’ cockatoos had flown down the chimney, apparently investigating it as a possible nest cavity.

This is a topic that Chris and I often find ourselves discussing. For someone like Chris, who free flies her birds outdoors, this behavior can be dangerous. It causes the birds to fly too far afield and stay gone too long. During a few months of the year, her birds are not allowed their typical free flight schedule until this seemingly overcoming urge diminishes. For me, it is more frustrating than it is dangerous for my birds.

Modal Action Patterns

There may be research about this aspect of parrot behavior, but I was unable to find it. As I said, everything that came up was about dental health.

However, I believe this behavior to be a modal action pattern. A modal action pattern is an innate behavior or chain of behaviors that is triggered by a particular stimulus. (These previously were referred to as fixed action patterns, but most are now moving toward the terminology of modal action pattern.)

Adult parrots are undeniably and obsessively attracted to small, dark spaces, round “holes,” and small spaces with darkness behind them. A companion parrot’s interpretation of a suitable nesting site can be pretty broad. Two dimensions can suffice, although a dark surface or dark background adds allure.

Cavity Seeking Examples

A few days ago, I allowed my grey Marko to be in the bathroom while I was in there. She began cavity seeking in a most unexpected way. I have a four-year-old granddaughter and happen to have a toilet seat her size which fits over the standard seat. When not in use, I have it on the counter. The oval shape was stimulating enough for Marko that she immediately began to investigate. No doubt, she would have jumped into the middle of it if I had allowed it to continue.

Many parrots become obsessed with getting into cupboards and drawers. This is often seen as amusing by owners and, therefore, is often encouraged. I once knew someone who had emptied out her kitchen cupboards so that her large macaws could play in them.  My own Marko will sit for hours atop my sock drawer if I leave it open a crack. She stares into that dark slit and chews on the top edge of the drawer.

She was also responsible for the need to replace my closet doors. As you can see, they originally had slats that allowed her to see the darkness behind the doors. Her flight skills were good enough that she could land on the outside of the doors and cling to them as she chewed. Before too long, she had remodeled things to her liking and proceeded to guard the site until I replaced the doors themselves with a mirrored substitute that did not allow for chewing.

Other Examples from Real Life

One client had an exceptionally aggressive little conure. When I visited the home, I immediately recognized conditions that set the stage for her biting behavior. Her cage was located in the dining area with an adjoining kitchen. She regularly got to spend time up on top of the refrigerator. There was also a dark wood bookcase with which she was fascinated. And, she often crawled between the dog kennel and the back of the bar top for seating that separated the kitchen from the area that housed her cage. Once her access to these spots had been eliminated, we were able to make good progress with a behavior modification plan.

Another client regularly allowed his Umbrella Cockatoo to sit in the drawer in his office next to him while he was at work. When I dictated this as “off limits” behavior, he provided her with a playstand.

He reported progress a couple of weeks later, due to the fact that she had begun staying in a corner of the office, chewing on the woodwork. I had to break the news to him that this too was nesting behavior and that he really needed to teach her to remain up on the playstand, as we had agreed. Although the two or three dimensions seen here wouldn’t lead us to think about it as a suitable site for nesting behavior, it was for this parrot.

Many of my clients regularly (until they speak to me at least) provide cardboard boxes for their parrot to play in. Seems harmless, right? Enrichment is good, right? Not in this case.

Such play should never be encouraged. I suggest that anyone reading this should stop this practice immediately. It’s much healthier, from a behavioral standpoint, for a parrot to perch on a well-designed playstand and interact with enrichment there.

Another problem can be the provision of toys and “sleeping huts” sold for birds that encourage cavity seeking behavior. If a parrot spends time in these during the day, I suggest their removal. They are not necessary and can be a real problem.

If your parrot spends any time in a place that results in what we typically call “territorial aggression,” access needs to be prevented. In other words, if your parrot darts out suddenly to bite you from a favored spot, it is likely that she regards it as a potential nest site, no matter how you view it.

Training Solutions

As any of us know who have tried to keep parrots where we want them to be, this can be a struggle. Training/teaching is necessary. Always when we want a parrot to stop a behavior, we must replace it with another, incompatible behavior.

The incompatible behavior for cavity seeking is stationing on acceptable perches. This is not difficult, but it takes consistent, daily effort over a long period of time. It is not nearly as quickly accomplished as training specific behaviors like targeting, for instance.

If your parrot regularly walks on the floor and engages in cavity seeking or regular chewing on baseboards or other wood in places there, he has established a relationship with that dimension of your home. He finds significant reinforcement in that physical location.

Therefore, the solution must be to establish a relationship with the perches you provide. That takes time, so don’t despair. Just keep doing the right things for long enough.

I work on this on a daily basis and see continued improvement. I put walnut pieces in my pocket every morning. I keep these in front of my coffee maker so that I don’t forget (habit stacking).

Every time I walk through my living area where the birds are located, I offer a walnut piece to those birds who are perched where I want them to be (hanging perches, cages, playstands). Mine are fully flighted and have freedom to go where they want at all times, so have many choices available to them.

If they are perched on the refrigerator or the dog kennel door or the floor, they get nothing. You would be amazed at what I have accomplished. Almost always, they are all perched where I want them to be.

Synopsis

As I have said, the real problem with this behavior is that we fail to recognize it, don’t understand the ramifications of allowing a parrot to pursue this activity, and so often accommodate it because it meets our needs.

As an example, I just spoke with a new client whose two greys have “nests” all over the space where they spend their days – cardboard boxes in which they spend time, trash cans, etc. This has never been viewed as a problem. They enjoy this activity and it has appeared to be a good way for them to spend time.

However, the problems to be addressed in this case include screaming, aggression and feather damaging behavior – all of which result from such activities. It will be impossible to address these until this behavior is replaced with the behaviors of perching up higher and interacting with enrichment in those places.

It is never happy to find yourself in this position. So, let’s clean this up right now before things get worse! I would love to hear from you. Is this something that you struggle with? Let’s all share what we know about this problem and help each other to find more solutions. Please provide a comment here on or Facebook, where you will find this post on both of my pages, Pamela Clark and The Parrot Steward.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots and offer behavior consultations to that end, as well as publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

The African Grey Parrot: Data and Deliberations

It’s a daunting task to write an article about any companion parrot species without relying too heavily upon the anthropomorphic or the generalization. It’s worth the attempt, however, in the case of the African Grey. While one of the most popular pet parrots on the face of the earth since biblical times, I believe it remains one of the most misunderstood.

My Life with Greys

My life with greys extends back almost three decades.  I specialized in breeding them for several years. I successfully trained them for free flight. I’ve rehabilitated more than a few, solved the problems of many as a behavior consultant, and cared for more than I want to remember as a veterinary technician. 

I’ve been publishing information about them since 1998.

There is no parrot species I love more and these days I share my home with a gang of six – three females and three males.

Timnehs and Congos

What you will read below will apply most specifically to the grey parrot known as the Congo African Grey or the Red-tailed Grey. Until recently, it was believed that the Timneh and the Congo Greys belonged to the same species, and were categorized as the sub-species, Psittacus erithacus erithacus and Psittacus erithacus timneh. They were finally designated as two separate species in 2012, although many sources continue to reflect the older designation. (Seibold-Torres C, 2015)

I felt vindicated when the 2012 news was announced because my personal experience of both had convinced me that they are not much alike at all. Not only do they come from completely different areas of Africa, their coloring is different, as is their behavior. When it comes to behavior, Timneh greys are more similar to Poicephalus parrots than they are like the Congo Grey.

The Data

The African Grey is an Old World species that originates from the equatorial region of Africa. Although notoriously difficult to study for several reasons, they have been observed congregating in dense rainforest, forest edges and clearings, gallery forests and mangroves. They are also seen in cultivated areas and gardens. They most enjoy roosting in tall trees over water.

Their social lifestyle in the wild could not be more unlike that of our favorite New World parrots, such as Amazons, conures, and macaws. Greys live in large communal roosts of up to 10,000 individuals. Smaller groups will break off to go on foraging expeditions, traveling as far as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) for the purpose. (Valla, D, 2019) Several hundred pairs may breed in one geographic location, although each monogamous pair takes possession of a single nest cavity.

From Back in My Breeding Days

It is reported that the young fledge at about the age of 12 weeks (a fact I can corroborate) and that their parents feed them for up to four to five weeks after that. Once eating independently, they remain with the flock and receive further care and education from the older members of the flock. The young birds stay with their family groups for up to several years. (Holman, R, 2008)

Greys are extremely vocal in the wild, generating a wide variety of sounds that include the mimicry of other birds, bats and mammals. They are nosiest in the early morning and again at dusk. Vocalizations occur both when perched and in flight. Typical sounds include whistles, shrieks, and screams, described as “high-pitched and penetrating” that often embody an eerie quality.

Wild greys forage both in the canopy and on the ground, feeding on oil palm fruit, flowers, seeds, berries, tree bark, snails, insects. While on the ground, they ingest mud, grasses and other low-growing plants. One visitor to Africa with whom I spoke many years ago confirmed that they have also been observed feeding upon carrion, although the literature does not corroborate this.

The Deliberations

Why are African Greys such popular pets? Talking ability is always the first reason cited. Their much documented level of intelligence comes in second. Research Associate Irene Pepperberg has not been the only one to document how scary smart these birds really are.

And, while words are rarely put to this aspect of living with a grey, their discerning personalities and ability to remain attune to their owners’ emotions and body language rank right up there with the other reasons why this species is one of the least likely to be relinquished to rescue and adoption organizations. The depth and quality of their interactions with their people make them such favorites.

Their Vocal Nature

Everyone loves a talking bird and greys seem to have special ability in this area. Many are the anecdotal accounts of those who use the English language in correct context, order from Amazon using Alexa, and seem to understand all that is said to them. You can’t visit YouTube or any other social media outlet without stumbling over an account of a talented grey.  

No doubt this is, in part, attributable to their wild tendency to vocalize often within their large flocks. It is in their DNA to express themselves vocally in order to solidify flock bonds. And it is true that their skill at mimicry is unparalleled. Often their repetition of sounds is so exact that it can be difficult to tell the difference for instance between the bird and the doorbell.

I have seen first-hand the pleasure they take in vocalizing back and forth to each other. When I was breeding greys, I had five pairs who were all wild-caught. These parrots knew their native language and they taught it to their babies and my adult companions. Every evening, I relished in the eerie, yet exquisitely beautiful, symphony that filled the air as the pairs outdoors communicated to those indoors and those indoors responded.

I believe that an individual grey’s extreme talent with human language can also be, however, a reflection of isolation as they live out their lives as captives in single-grey homes. Greys are often kept as single parrots and most live with clipped wings, which creates an additional level of isolation.

Given their innate need to communicate with their flock and documented talent at mimicry, coupled with their imposed physical isolation, is it any wonder that so many become such good talkers?

I have often said that “Greys who can’t talk, greys who can fly.” None of my greys who have grown up with other greys and who live a flighted life choose to speak English very often, although they have the ability, which they display at times. They are too busy moving about from place to place and rely instead upon communicating in the more natural grey language of shrill beeps and whistles. 

People often assume that a grey who chooses to talk a lot does so because she is happy. Don’t be too sure about that.

Their Social Nature

Greys and Us

I would describe Congo greys as discerning, well-attuned to the emotions and body language of other creatures, and having a keen sense of humor. I also think of them as the chess players of the parrot world, quite capable of manipulation. Granted, this is anthropomorphism at this best, but this is my experience of them.

A Sweet Little Meyer’s Parrot with No Feet

During the same time period that I was raising baby greys, I was also intentionally engaging in the rehabilitation of surrendered parrots. I had approximately 30 at a time, so had my own “behavior lab” of sorts.

I would frequently look up while I went about my daily work and observed a difference in the way that the various species related to me. Most of the parrots would be engaged in their own business of foraging, bathing, sunning, playing. The greys, however, would most often have their attention on me and my activities. This bordered on spooky. Greys watch us intently and get to know us in an intimate way.

Gretel Ehrlich once wrote the following: “What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we’re finally ourselves.” That describes perfectly the Red-tailed Grey.

My Marko

Greys are described as monogamous and as often forming a pair bond with a single human in the home. While the latter is often certainly true, my experience of them is that they form relatively loose pair bonds. While I have frequently helped clients whose Amazons or cockatoos were displaying fierce aggression toward other family members, I have never dealt with such a problem with a grey.

Greys and Other Species

Grey seem to get along best with other Old World parrots.

This doesn’t mean that such mixing of these species will always be successful, but I have seen routinely that my greys get along much better with my cockatoos and the occasional visiting Eclectus than with my New World parrots.

My grey Marko is absolutely intolerant of my two Amazons and once attacked my Blue and Gold macaw. I have had to segregate Old World and New World parrots physically in my home as the individuals have gotten older.

This doesn’t mean of course that you can’t have both greys and New World parrots who cohabit peacefully in a home, but don’t expect them to be friends and be careful with introductions. Avoiding conflict may need to be the primary goal.

Greys and Other Greys

I have always lived with multiple greys with little trouble among them. This would not be true if I were speaking about cockatoo or Amazon species which, in my experience, form much stronger pair bonds that often lead to aggression toward others.

Congo Greys in captivity seem to have an affinity for other Congo greys. This news should not come as any surprise, given how they live in the wild.

When I was breeding greys, I removed the babies from their parents after two to three weeks and brought them into the house. They lived in the great room in the middle of family activity.

Six-month-old Grey with a Younger Baby

I was astonished to find that the older greys eagerly chose to climb into the box of babies to spend time with them. This reflects the wild observations about how older grey flock members also care for young parrots. Two of my adult grey companions took responsibility for schooling, and even feeding, the babies.

I have over the years introduced many adult greys to the others already living in my home and, with few exceptions, they always get along well. The “social hierarchy” may take a bit of re-ordering, which is usually accomplished through a bit of snarking at each other, but things always calm down with everyone getting along. I have also assisted numerous clients in introducing a new grey to an existing one, with similar positive results.

I have observed in repeated situations an odd social phenomenon. While female greys tolerate and perhaps enjoy each other, two males will often form a close bond with each other.

Phoenix and Boston (both males)

This can take the form of a pair bond, complete with the display of mating rituals. Over the years of living with greys, I have regularly seen two males pair up, preferring to hang out with each other rather than with any of the females.

I sometimes board for periods of time a male grey named Chuckie. He settles right in as soon as he gets here and renews his acquaintances with my guys, often flying over to perch with them.

The last time he was here, his behavior was different. He seemed happy enough, but was a bit less vocal and exuberant than during previous visits. He obviously wasn’t ill, but seemed a tiny bit “off.”

He’s back now for another visit and this time is his typical funny, relaxed, social self. What’s different? Last visit, my male greys were living outdoors in the aviary. This time, they are back inside and I have finally realized that Chuckie very obviously prefers their company to that of the three females that I have.

Granted, these are all anecdotal observations. However, my experience is deep enough in this area that I would suggest that if you are seeking to adopt an African Grey, consider bringing home two of them so that they have each other as well as you.

And, in a last word on this subject, there is a tiny bit of scientific evidence to support this advice. Telomeres are the caps on certain chromosomes that control chromosome stability. Telomere length tends to decrease in length with the age of the African Grey. However, one study found that greys who lived singly had significantly shorter telomeres than those that were housed in pairs. ( Aydinonat, D. et al, 2014)

Their Physical Nature

Greys suffer from some pretty serious physical and medical problems in captivity, some well-known and some not.

Atherosclerosis is the most recently recognized threat to the health of greys, who seem to be especially disposed to develop this disease process. This is clearly a lifestyle disease, the development of which is related to diet and lack of exercise.

Greys are prone to developing both vitamin A and vitamin D deficiencies and display a widely-recognized tendency toward hypocalcemia (low calcium levels). The latter results in neurological symptoms, such as seizures, in adult birds. In the young, this manifests as osteodystrophy (defective bone development).

Seed diets have been implicated in the development of atherosclerosis, as well as the vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, there is more to the story.

One study demonstrated that the provision of UV-B light increased serum ionized calcium, independent of the levels of calcium and vitamin D in the diet. The hypothesis is that, since greys in the wild live in low shade areas and are exposed to high levels of sunlight in the wild, they may need UV-B light in order to have adequate vitamin D levels in the body. Since vitamin D regulates calcium absorption, this may be one reason, in addition to diet, that greys so often suffer from calcium deficiencies.

I found this especially interesting because of an observation that I made back during my rehab period. I had at that time four outdoor aviaries and regularly made observations regarding the behavior of the different species when in them.

Generally, the New World parrots spent very little time in the direct sunlight, while the greys remained there for much longer periods. In fact, one day I found one female on the bottom of the aviary with her wings spread. After I recovered from my shock, I realized that she had only been sun bathing. To this day, my greys will choose to sit in the sun more often than in the shade.

While the above medical issues deserve serious consideration, we seem to be most often more distressed by the feather damaging behavior in which so many greys engage. This is a very complex problem, typically due to the presence of several risk factors.

The reasons may include, but are not limited to poor early beginnings, lack of foraging or bathing opportunities, insufficient exercise, no exposure to natural sunlight, limited time out of the cage, no learning opportunities, over-dependence upon the owner, and malnutrition, in addition to medical causes.

Chronic stress is also a probable component and is often incorrectly blamed as the sole cause of a given problem. In fact, one study revealed that there is an association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite secretion in captive grey parrots. (Costa, P. et al, 2016) This makes perfect sense, since the risk factors identified above can all contribute to increased stress.

I have specialized in resolving this problem for clients and have good success. However, the longer I do this work, the more I come to believe that liberty, time spend outdoors, and balanced social opportunity are primary factors that contribute significantly to a grey’s mental health.

More than one grey has been returned to a fully feathered state by being placed in new conditions that allowed for frequent flight and interaction by choice with both conspecifics and people who use positive reinforcement to provide learning opportunities.

My Grey Conclusions

I offer you the following thoughts aimed at helping you to have the most successful grey experience:

  • Consider keeping more than one grey companion in your home.
  • Feed the best diet possible, incorporating a high quality pellet supplemented with plenty of vegetables high in betacarotene (yellow, red, orange or dark green).
  • Provide plenty of foraging and learning opportunities.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Set up an outdoor aviary that allows for sunbathing whenever the weather permits.
  • If you get a baby, adopt one that has been parent-reared or that has had exposure to several adult greys. If you can’t find one who fits this description, walk away and adopt an older bird.
  • Do not clip wings if your grey parrot has flight capability.
  • Use care in arranging for your absences. Never leave a grey at home alone with a caregiver who comes in just once or twice a day.
  • Allow as much time out of the cage as possible and encourage liberty and choice-making.
  • Never get into a battle of wills with a grey bird.

Final Words

I am reluctant to end this piece, but understand that it is overly long as it is. There is just so much more I would like to tell you about them.

African Greys are complex birds. Many of us who have had the privilege of sharing our homes with them feel that, should we be able to keep only one parrot as a friend, it would be a grey.

The gifts they have to share are exceptional but will be received in full measure only when we are exceptional in our relationships with them. We must honor their innate timetables for early development, allow them to develop physically, mentally and socially into the incredible creatures they have evolved to be and honor their sensitivities in our care practices.

Wait! Don’t Leave Yet…

I’m excited to announce that I will be giving a one-of-a-kind live webinar on screaming (and any other problem noise) on Thursday, October 10 at 11:00 am PDT (2:00 pm EDT). Unlike other webinars, this experience will provide you with a complete plan for solving any screaming problem. Attendees will receive a workbook, supporting materials, and a special offer for on-going support. Please don’t miss it!

References:

Aydinonat D, Penn DJ, Smith S, Moodley Y, Hoelzl F, Knauer F, et al. (2014) Social Isolation Shortens Telomeres in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). PLoS ONE 9(4): e93839. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093839aa

Costa P, Macchi E, Valle E, De Marco M, Nucera DM, Gasco L, Schiavone A. 2016. An association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite excretion in captive African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) PeerJ 4:e2462 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2462

Griffin, Jenny (13 February 2012). “Species Spotlight on the African Grey Parrot”. Brighthub. Retrieved 1 March 2016. https://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/20670.aspx

Holman, R. 2008. “Psittacus erithacus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 24, 2019 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Psittacus_erithacus

Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998

Lafeber Company. 2019. African Grey Parrot. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/species/african-grey-parrot

Stromberg, Joseph. 2012. African Grey Parrots Have the Reasoning Skills of 3-year-olds. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/african-grey-parrots-have-the-reasoning-skills-of-3-year-olds-15955221

Sanford, Michael, BVSc, MRCVS. 2004. The Effects of UV-B Lighting Supplementation in African Grey Parrots. Selected Papers from the International Conference on Exotics 2004. ICE Proceedings. Exotic DVM, Vol. 6.3. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9fe6/40ea0111eb22183a877a25d16bbbf0d809a5.pdf

Mikolasch, Sadra, Kotrschal, Kurt and Schloegl, Christian. African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) use inference by exclusion to find hidden food7Biol. Lett.http://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.0500

Reuell, Peter. 2017. Discerning Bird. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/12/harvard-researchers-test-intelligence-of-african-grey-parrot

Seibold-Torres C, Owens E, Chowdhary R, Ferguson-Smith M, A, Tizard I, Raudsepp T. 2015. Comparative Cytogenetics of the Congo African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) Karger Cytogenetic and Genome Research. 2015;147:144-153. doi: 10.1159/000444136. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/444136. Accessed 9/23/19.

Valla, Daniela. 2019. 5 Surpising Facts About African Grey Parrots. https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/blogs/5-surprising-facts-about-african-grey-parrots

My Parrot Won’t Play With Toys!

This is a claim I hear often from parrot owners who are totally frustrated in their efforts to offer enrichment in the form of toys or foraging, only to see their birds ignoring it.  Many simply give up, after spending what seems like endless amounts of time and money, having achieved no success at all.

And, after all… isn’t it okay if we have a bird who doesn’t play with toys if he seems happy enough? If he’s not displaying behavior problems and he’s healthy, why keep trying? Keeping parrots seems to be a lot of work at times. Many ask, “Do I really need to keep working on this too?”

I hate to disappoint you…but the answer is yes.photo-1519165209234-0545d0e2c755  You do need to keep working on this.  Your parrot does need to interact with enrichment for the very best quality of life.  If you want him to enjoy physical, emotional, and intellectual health, you’ve got to keep trying.

Parrots, like all creatures, evolved to act upon their environment in different ways. When they do, the environment gives them feedback. This feedback from the environment offers them the chance to learn. This learning process enriches their lives much of the time in different ways.

A parrot who doesn’t know how to keep himself busy is a lot more likely to develop behavior problems such as screaming or chewing off feathers.  “Captive settings may limit the expression of normal behaviours and, as a consequence, abnormal behaviours may develop.” (Rodriguez-Lopez, 2016)

Glove StufferYour parrot can work on a foraging project for 30 minutes, finally accessing his treat.  Or he can scream for 30 minutes until you finally react.  The treat and your reaction are both “feedback” from the environment. Both types of feedback enrich his life because he acted on the environment in order to get a certain result.

His existence is enriched by your social attention when you react, even if you sound angry or use a swear word or two.  It can be quite enjoyable for a bored parrot to figure out what he can do to get a reaction out of you. He is hard-wired to act upon his environment. He will do so independently of you and your desires.

I have always thought of a parrot’s day as similar to a “pie chart of activity.”  In other words, they operate in our homes within an “activity budget.”  I want my parrots’ activity budget to look something like this pie graph. Granted, the time spent in each activity likely would not be the same, but you get the idea. Foraging

If your parrot doesn’t fly or interact with wood or other enrichment, there’s a much greater chance that some of those pie wedges may read “screaming” or “biting” or “feather destruction.”

There is a second reason why we can’t give up on trying to get our parrots to interact with physical enrichment. Life in captivity is stressful  for our companion parrots, no matter how good a job we do with them.  “Captive animals are susceptible to chronic stress due to restricted space, lack of hiding places, presence of visitors, or the lack of resources that promote physical and mental stimuli. In birds, chronic stress can promote stereotypes, self-mutilation, feather picking, chewing on cage bars and walls, fearfulness and excessive aggression. Environmental enrichment (EE) becomes an important management tool to decrease chronic stress in captive animals.” (de Almeida, Palme, and Moreira 2018)

Thus, it is a real problem when a parrot doesn’t interact with enrichment or know how to forage.  It’s enough of a problem that it deserves dissection. If we can come to a better understanding of the problem, we can both prevent it AND solve it.

The problem begins with our own expectations. Everyone talks about parrots “playing,” so we expect our parrots to play.   This expectation is not a reasonable one, if applied to all parrots.

Mylas+and+Severe+2+7-20-2009+6-02-44+PM[1] (2)Baby parrots play.  One of the happiest periods of my life was when I was breeding a small number of African Greys each year.  There is nothing more fun that watching the development of baby parrots. They are learning machines. They are eager to investigate anything you give them. Like all baby animals, they are playful. That is their job –  it’s how they learn about the world.

Once mature, however, most adult parrots don’t play. It’s not their nature to be playful. Granted, there are exceptions.  Some individuals are more playful than others. Some species tend to be more playful  than others – caiques, lorikeets, small macaws and some conures, to name a few. Some individuals within those species could play for hours with a simple object. If you need cheering up, check this video out.

However, if you expect an African Grey, one of the Poicephalus species, or an Eclectus to be playful, you could wait a very long time. Thus, the first problem is thinking there is something wrong with your parrot if he doesn’t play.

An adult parrot has a different job – to stay safe with the knowledge he’s learned to date. They are often suspicious, if not downright afraid, of new things.  If you expect your adult parrot to immediately interact with a new toy or project, you may be sadly disappointed. It could very well take a week or longer before your bird decides that object is safe enough for exploration.  So, that’s the second problem – expecting your parrot to interact with new enrichment items without a proper period of introduction.

If your older parrot was raised by a breeder who didn’t offer enrichment to the babies and then went into a first home or two where this need was also neglected, he may have temporarily lost that once-important desire to investigate, even once an item does become familiar. Both situations can lead to that diagnosis – My parrot doesn’t play with toys!

The third problem we create for ourselves with this issue has to do with perception. Dr. Susan Friedman has made enormous contributions to our understanding of behavior. In many of her articles, she discusses the problems that result when we label parrot behavior. For example, if I think of my parrot as aggressive, this leads me nowhere, in terms of arriving at a solution to that problem. However, if I look at the circumstances surrounding the bites, I see that there are some things I can change.  Changing the right circumstances in an effective way does lead to a solution to the problem.

When you tell yourself …My parrot doesn’t play with toys!…it’s the same thing as imposing a label on your parrot. photo-1538440694107-8448c848ad97That statement in itself will prevent you from solving this problem because you will believe it. To move toward a solution, you must look at what the parrot does do and build from there. Every parrot interacts with some objects, even if you don’t think of them as toys.

A fourth obstacle to having a parrot who interacts with enrichment is the type of things manufactured and sold to parrot owners. Often these are targeted at you and your pocketbook, rather than your parrot’s preferences. Purchasing the wrong type of toys can lead to the same conclusion – My parrot doesn’t play with toys! 

For one thing, the desires of a parrot and the desires of a parrot owner are not the same and toy manufacturers know this.  A parrot wants to destroy a wood toy quickly and easily.  He wants to act on his environment. A parrot owner wants to buy a toy that will last due to the expense. He wants to spend his money wisely. images (15)

How many of us have wasted our money on the toy to the right?  Those alphabet blocks and round wooden beads are so hard that only the very largest of parrots can chew them up. Most parrots will simply give up after a short while. But, the important thing to the owner is that he didn’t spend $25.00 on a toy that only lasted a brief while.

The second problem is the power of advertising. We love parrots and we love photos of parrots.  Therefore, as a selling tool the manufacturer or company will position a toy with a parrot suggesting interest in the parrot towards the toy.91M9oTClGZL._SL1500_  You’ve got to use your critical thinking skills to question the advertising before moving the item into your shopping cart.  Look at the toy to the left. Suggested by the photo as appropriate for a cockatiel, this toy is totally unsatisfactory for a bird of that size…or any bird.  Those coconuts are very hard and the holes are so small that getting anything out of them would be difficult.

Let the buyer beware.

So, what are you supposed to do if you have a bird doesn’t play with toys?

First, find a starting place.  Most parrots interact with something. If you have a parrot who loves to play with bottle caps (and doesn’t chew on them), hide bottle caps in a foraging toy so that it takes some work for him to get at them.

If your parrot loves to chew the back of your sofa, create toys made of fabric. Get a cotton gardening glove and stuff it with interesting items and food treats and hang this in the cage. Or find a pair of baby overalls at Goodwill and use zip ties to close up the legs.  Then, stuff the pockets with foot toys and treats.

If your parrot loves paper and cardboard, but won’t chew wood, then give him foraging projects made from those materials. If your parrot only chews on smaller wood toys, but demolishes them too quickly, then create these with wood slices and beads on a stainless skewer sold for parrots.

Second, make sure that the perching you provide sets the bird up for success and makes it easy for him to interact with the item.  I often see toys hung in the cage without any perch nearby.  Put yourself in your parrot’s feathers.  If he perches there, can he reach that toy comfortably?

Third, provide reinforcement.  Once you have found an item with which your parrot interacts, keep a soft focus on his behavior. When you see him touch or chew the toy…or even just look at it…immediately tell him “Good!” and quickly offer a preferred food treat. Soon he will learn that messing around with things in his cage earns him food!

Fourth, experiment.  Gradually, add a wider variety of toys – stainless steel bells, paper, fabric, easy-to-chew wood, puzzle toys, etc.  Through this process, you can discover a lot about your bird.  Don’t pre-judge his interests and preferences.  Perhaps you’ve always just given him wood toys, only to find that he’s insane for bells.  Many small macaws for example, enjoy sitting underneath bells.  One caveat:  most parrots prefer toys made of natural materials; my advice would be to leave those acrylic toys at the bird store, unless they offer a foraging challenge.

One small study found that parrots interacted with their staple diet of pellets for longer periods if they were provided with “over-sized” pellets.  (Rozek, Danner, Stucky, Millam, 2010) These required longer periods of time for consumption, given the additional challenges of manipulation. If your parrot consumes one size of pellet, perhaps providing much larger pellets in or out of foraging toys could be an important type of enrichment.

The most difficult challenge can be teaching an older parrot to forage who never learned the skill in the first place. Baby parrots are naturally curious, but they have to be provided with the raw materials to develop this into the skill of exploration. Older parrots can still learn this, however, and it is important that they do. “Enrichment is more successful it if is aimed at soliciting species-specific behaviours such as foraging.” (Coulton, Waran, Young, 1997)

BobbingForApplesTeaching a parrot to forage requires starting with very basic challenges and then making them incrementally more difficult in small steps.  Many of you may have already seen this, either on my website or on Facebook, but I have completed a pamphlet of foraging challenges that are easily made at home from inexpensive materials.  It demonstrates how to start out simple and gradually add complexity. This is free to all of you for download: Parrot Enrichment Made Easy: Low Cost Tips and Tricks.

Lastly, there are some foraging toys sold on the market today that do help beginning foragers to learn the skill.  My favorite is the Acrylic Foraging Kabob.  It triggers interest because the parrot can see that it has something inside of it, but offers enough of a challenge in extracting the items. It can be very helpful in introducing vegetables.  And, it includes a food skewer that is useful in making other toys.

A last word.  Remember – always watch your parrot with any new toy to make sure he’s interacting with it safely. Most parrots will not ingest non-food items, but watch nonetheless, especially if you are giving your parrot a toy with cotton strings attached.

End Note:  I attempt, whenever possible, to substantiate my anecdotal observations with scientific research. I have cited a number of studies at the end of this blog that help to support what I have said.  However, there has been a bit of a bias among researchers to focus more on enrichment for captive primates and carnivores. The studies that have been performed for captive parrots are few and often have been done on very small populations. They may be suggestive, rather than definitive.

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!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Saeed Lajami on Unsplash.com.

References:

Coulton, LE, NK Waran, and RJ Young. 1997. “Effects of Foraging Enrichment on the Behaviour of Parrots.” Animal Welfare 1997, 6: 357-363. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_Young15/publication/233642678_Effects_of_Foraging_Enrichment_on_The_Behaviour_of_Parrots/links/004635388f928d5693000000.pdf

De Almeida, Ana Claudia, Rupert Palm and Nei Moreira. 2018. “How Environmental Enrichment Affects Behavioral and Glucocorticoid Responses in Captive Blue-and-Yellow Macaws (Ara araruana).” Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 201: 125-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.12.019

Meehan, CL, JP Garner, and JA Mench. 2004. “Environmental Enrichment and Development of Cage Stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica). Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychogiol 44: 209-218. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bbb2/a21684e23a62de973c1779e8d6a103f7463a.pdf

Rodriguez-Lopez, Rogelio. 2016. “Environmental Enrichment for Parrot Species: Are We Squawking Up the Wrong Tree?” Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 180: 1 – 10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.016

Rozek, Jessica, Lindsey Danner, Paul Stucky, and James Millam. 2010. “Over-sized pellets naturalize foraging time of captive Orange-winges Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica).”  Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 125: 80-87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.001

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

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

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

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

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Before Photo (early April 2018)

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

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

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

A Complex Problem

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

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

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

Identification of Causes

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

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

Stress and Feather Picking

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

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

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

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

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

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

Evolving the Pair Bond

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

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

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

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

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

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

Foraging and Enrichment

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

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

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

Making Changes to Diet

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

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

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

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

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

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

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

Stress

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

Results

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

OscarAfter
After Photo (mid-June 2018)

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

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

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

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

Lessons to Be Learned

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

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

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

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>