a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

 

Lessons from Ellie

Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo, came to live with me at the end of June 2019. She was adopted from Exotic Bird Rescue in Eugene, Oregon and has had a history of living in a home environment. She is eight years old and fully flighted. She is social with people and is, of course, adorable.

Ellie was completely new to me. I  began our getting-to-know-each other journey with excitement and positivity. Ellie? Not so much. She showed some suspicion and wariness in her new environment, which is understandable. If I had been moved to a new home with a family I did not know, I would be pretty stressed out.

Early Preparations

I had prepared well for her introduction into my home. The family room is where I spend most of my indoor time and where Ellie would be living. I furnished it with ropes draped from the ceiling and a large rope “orbit” for her to land on if she chose.

Her cage was placed against a wall next to a window. She could see outside, as well as hunker down in her cage to avoid exposure to stimulation from the window. From her cage, she could see the cockatoos far off in their aviaries or while they were out flying. I also built Ellie a small aviary attached to the front of the house with access to it from the window next to her cage.

Martha Stewart would be impressed with my interior and exterior decorations for Ellie and I looked forward to watching Ellie’s enjoyment of them. In my mind, I saw her flying happily from rope to rope, swinging on the orbit, and bouncing on the boing. Oh, what fun we’d have!

Early Lessons

Behavior I was used to….

My first lesson from my teacher, Miss Ellie, was to lower my expectations and alter the above mental images. I’m so used to my lifelong ‘toos being active, exploratory, playful (especially young Bare-eyeds), and confident that I assumed Ellie would be the same way.

Even though she seemed to be a confident cockatoo, she did everything in slow motion. When she first arrived, she explored and considered each new situation with great thought and care. She was more of an observer than an action figure. Consequently, I too, had to slow myself down and not expect her to jump (or fly) for joy at my jungle gym set-up or explore the house and aviary on her own.

Ellie eventually became comfortable with her new home, and that’s when the “real” Ellie emerged—sort of like the movie, Alien, where the monster claws its way out of the human’s chest. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but this new Ellie certainly caught my attention.

End of the “Honeymoon Period”

Some people call the first two weeks or so, when a mature parrot comes to live in their home, the honeymoon period. The new parrot may be quiet, calm, and friendly to everyone so all is right with the world. We can be duped into believing that these are the permanent, unchanging qualities of our new friend.

Many times they are not. As the parrot becomes more comfortable and confident in his new environment, he will start to exhibit  behaviors that may have been repressed in the beginning.  Those behaviors may not be conducive to a happy relationship between caregiver and parrot.

Behavior is a function of its consequences; and, like all of us, Ellie has her own repertoire of behaviors that were reinforced successfully time and again during her life before she came to me. The science of learning tells us that a reinforced behavior will occur again. Unfortunately, some of Ellie’s old behaviors poked a few holes in our honeymoon period.

Signs of Trouble

For example, in the beginning I would walk Ellie around the house on my hand, which she seemed to enjoy. One of her favorite rooms was the bathroom. One day, while in the bathroom, she flew from my hand to the sink. She immediately went into the sink showing excitement. I asked her to step up, which was met with fluffed up head feathers and a cold stare. I knew what Ellie was saying: “Stay away from my sink!”

Our second troublesome interaction occurred in the family room. Ellie had become comfortable flying to the rope and hanging out. I was delighted with her having control of her environment. Unfortunately, she seemed bent on controlling me as well; and, she wasn’t using positive reinforcement (R+) methods to do so, that’s for sure.

For example, from her rope perch she would occasionally fly at me showing obvious aggression with her beak wide open, breathing fire like a flying dragon. Another instance was with her feed bowl. Ellie liked to bury her head in the bowl. Hiding her head in the bowl  is often a nesting behavior for a cockatoo, as the bowl can represent a nest cavity. If I walked near the bowl at this time, she would often strike at me.

My Behavior-Change Plan

With the real Ellie showing me these not-so-compatible behavior traits, I made up a training plan using the science-based training techniques of environmental change and R+.

Using a target to remove Ellie from her cage.

First thing was to teach Ellie to target. This simple training behavior can help form a favorable relationship between learner and teacher by helping the learner understand that good things come from the teacher through operant learning; that is, Ellie could choose to touch the target to get a treat. This exercise teaches Ellie that she has control over the training and the treat reinforcement.

Targeting with Ellie

Allowing a student control is a very powerful reinforcer. If she didn’t want to participate, then I would leave. However, she soon learned that the food goodies left with me. On future training encounters, Ellie started participating and it wasn’t long before she was an expert at targeting.

Environmental Modifications

The next thing on the list was to alter Ellie’s dragon flying routine. I could do this in many ways. I could just put up with it and dodge her attacks. I could swat at her as she flew at me. I could let her land on me and bite me and not react showing her that this behavior is pointless (yes, this is advice given by some parrot behavior consultants!). Or, I could change the environment that would make her dragon flying less likely to occur. Using the least intrusive, most effective method, I chose the latter.

I took down the rope so that she didn’t have her launch pad available. I also replaced her feed bowl with a foraging wheel full of pellets so Ellie didn’t have any “nesty” type bowl to display in and protect.

Changes to the Daily Schedule

At the same time, I changed her daily schedule. Ellie now goes out in the aviary each morning with a treat. I make sure the aviary is full of enrichment, in the forms of grape vines and other plant material to forage on, along with a foraging net full of shredded paper, wood, and food treats. She engages with them all.

I also go into the aviary multiple times a day to practice step ups and step downs with her, as well as targeting using positive reinforcement with food treats. This is helping to change her perception of me from a possible threat or an enroachment on her territory into a person who delivers good things. I will soon start to generalize the step up behavior by practicing it in various parts of the house. This will expand her step-up repertoire, as well as establish it as a highly reinforcing behavior.

At dinnertime, Ellie is asked to step up from her aviary and then I put her in her cage with her dinner of sprout mix. It is fed in a bowl, but when she is done, I take the bowl out which helps curb the “nesty” bowl behavior. I give her a foraging toy as a replacement and she still has her foraging wheel full of pellets, if she so chooses.

Finally, I don’t allow Ellie to fly about the house, even with the rope being absent. I will eventually, but want to wait until we have developed a more solid, supportive partnership. Instead of clipping her, which many people resort to when they have a “misbehaving” flying parrot, I’ve changed the environment as previously mentioned by eliminating the ropes and other opportunities to fly. She can certainly fly in her aviary, of course.

I am enjoying the challenges Ellie is offering me. Using my knowledge of the science of learning and behavior and utilizing positive reinforcement training methods, I have no doubt Ellie and I will form a lasting and trusting relationship. It may take a few weeks or a few months and require many adjustments along the way, but we have all the time in the world. I take pleasure in the journey and look forward to the successes and challenges that are sure to occur.

The Latest News

Baby Bare-eyed made her grand entrance into her new world on July 20, at nine weeks of age. She came out of her nest box in the early morning.

Baby Star has fledged! She is on the right.

I didn’t see her exit so when I saw three cockatoos in the aviary instead of just two cockatoos, it took me by surprise. It also took me a second to understand it was the baby—call me slow. When it sunk in, great excitement ensued!

If you read my very first guest blog post, you understand that the impetus behind allowing these two Bare-eyed cockatoos to go to nest was Asta’s loss. In Greek, Asta means “star.” Therefore, it seemed a natural progression to name this new little one Star.

I’ll devote the next blog to baby Star’s exploits as she navigates her new world with the help of her parents. Stay tuned!

Just for Fun!

It has been fascinating to me to watch the interactions between Flash and Bebe as they have raised their new chick. Things have not always been friendly between the two. At times Flash has been aggressive toward Bebe. Currently, Bebe won’t let Flash near Star, now that she has left the nestbox. If only we could read their minds! In place of that, I have allowed them to work off a little energy by letting them out of the aviary to fly each day. Once outside the enclosure, they seem to remember that they are a bonded pair.

Release from the Aviary

Stay tuned! In my next blog episode, I will provide an in-depth look into the interactions between the parents and their fledgling. I am observing behavior that I’m not sure how to interpret and have written to other experts to see if they can shed some light on these. I will also continue to offer an inside look my world with Miss Ellie Bare-eyed. Until next time….

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.

Parrots in Bird Rooms

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the LIMA Hierarchy? LIMA stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” I am a LIMA behavior consultant, which means that I will always use the behavior change strategies that are least intrusive and minimally aversive with working with you and your parrot.

If a client wants to teach his parrot to step onto his hand, we have a choice between the use of positive or negative reinforcement. He can offer a valued item to “reward” the behavior when it occurs (positive reinforcement) or he could hold an aversive item near the bird to encourage him to get onto the hand and then withdraw it when he does (negative reinforcement).

Both tactics will accomplish the goal, but one is preferable to the other. The use of positive reinforcement improves the parrot’s quality of life and builds trust. As a result, the parrot often voluntarily exceeds the effort necessary to perform the task. The use of negative reinforcement can both break trust and cause unnecessary and detrimental stress to the parrot. The obvious and best choice is to use positive reinforcement to teach or strengthen behaviors.

The LIMA Hierarchy

The LIMA Hierarchy is also known as the Humane Hierarchy, and provides an ethical structure for behavior consultants and others (that’s you) when it comes to selecting training and behavior modification tactics. As the illustration below suggests, the very first step when attempting to change behavior is to examine conditions that support the parrot’s wellness.

Poor diet, unmet or inappropriately met social needs, and other poor practices or limitations in the environment will set the stage for behavior problems to develop. In other words, if the parrot is not getting his primary needs met, he will be more likely to display problem behavior. (Please note that “getting his needs met” does not equate with “getting what he wants.”) Conversely, if these areas are not corrected, reversing problem behavior will be either more difficult or impossible.

Thus the first step when solving behavior problems, consistent with both the LIMA Hierarchy and simple good sense, is to examine the diet and environment and make changes that will create wellness, increase quality of life, and support improved behavior.  

Deal Breakers in Parrot Care

I have come to think of some environmental conditions as “deal breakers.” My definition of a deal breaker in this instance refers to environmental conditions that are so detrimental to the parrot’s welfare that, should they continue, they make resolution of the behavior problem either extremely difficult or impossible.

For example, feeding a high fat, high carbohydrate diet is often a deal breaker. If the parrot is so full of fatty foods that he isn’t motivated to work for reinforcers, new behaviors can’t easily be taught. Further, a high-fat diet produces more energy for the parrot, which often is channeled into increased noise and aggression. Therefore, if the diet is not improved, behavior change becomes unlikely and malnutrition will be the continued result.

Another deal breaker can be excessive daily cage time. I am convinced that caged birds need at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, and that this needs to be broken into two sessions. If a parrot receives less time out than this, the pent-up energy and boredom that result will, at the very least, be reflected in increased noise, and at the worst, cause the development of stereotypical behaviors. Thus, this problem must be corrected before we can effectively implement behavior change strategies.

Bird Rooms Can Be Deal Breakers

This brings me to the topic of the bird room. Bird rooms have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. In fact, I was gob smacked when I searched online using the phrase. Pinterest, apparently, is the home of all good bird room ideas.  Make some popcorn! You could spend an entire day there and still not read it all. The only point not discussed is their unsuitability for the parrots who live in them.

A bird room can obviously be a huge benefit to owners because they help to contain the noise and the mess. When company arrives, you can shut the door to the bird room and socialize in peace. That closed door also hides the poop you didn’t get cleaned off the floor, the papers that your grey just pulled out of the cage onto the floor, the sweet potatoes on the wall, and the chewed woodwork. In other words, a bird room allows you to appear a bit saner to your friends who are inclined to visit.

But, does your bird room meet your parrot’s needs? Before I go further, allow me to provide one caveat. There are bird rooms and there are Bird Rooms. I have seen entire rooms designed for the parrot’s enriched existence in mind, with perches running the entire length of the room and lots to do and chew. The parrots get to be out of their cages all day in this type of bird room. There is usually also a comfortable spot for the owners, making it their room as well. This type of indoor aviary stands a much better chance of meeting the birds’ needs and does not factor into the discussion that follows.

For the purpose of this post, the definition of a bird room is a bedroom or office that contains the cages for all the birds in the household and little else. It is the room where the birds stay in their cages most of the time. A bird room like this often sets the stage for the development of behavior problems and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve them. The following discussion outlines the problems I see with this more typical type of bird room.

Disadvantages of Bird Rooms

Decreased Quality of Life: Many studies have concluded that one criterion for good quality of life for captive animals (this includes your companion parrots) is to afford the animal control over its environment. (Wolfensohn, S. et al 2018 ) This manifests within the practice of giving the parrot as many choices as possible. The typical arrangement for birds who live in bird rooms is to provide playstands for the birds in the common area; when the birds get to be out of the room, they perch on these stands.

However, most playstands offer little to do for the parrot. Most don’t even have toy holders. When the birds do get to join their owners for some social time, it is most often to perch in one place only.

Environment matters a lot to birds. They thrive when their “home” is placed in our living area. It’s important for them to be able to behave socially in a normal (or as close to normal as we can support) manner when living in our homes. Clipping wings cripples them from behaving normally in a social manner. Confining all movements to a simple playstand when out of the bird room, adds to this “invisible confinement.”

Increased Physical and Emotional Isolation: Keeping parrots in a bird room cannot possibly result in anything less than increased isolation. We may entertain the goal of getting the birds out into the living area to visit twice a day, but this plan often gets put on hold during the busier times of the year. While some household parrots bond strongly to each other, most do not. They enjoy the presence of the other birds in the home, but their primary bonds remain to us. This artificial separation, then, increases the stress already inherent in living in captivity.

Increased Stress: I think of parrots, even the smaller species, as having large personalities. Large personalities result in a sense of territory. If you watch a group of parrots who are able to be at liberty all day, you will see that they keep their distance from each other most of the time, even if they are the same species. They interact socially, but don’t perch side by side unless they share a pair bond. 

My own experience has convinced me that cages for medium to large parrots should be no closer than four or five feet from each other. This allows each parrot to have their own “sense of territory” and reduces the stress that parrots feel when crammed in next to each other in a single room. When cages are closer, you will often see hyper-excitable behavior and increased “territorial” aggression in parrots who live full-time in a bird room.

Increased Frequency of Undesirable Behavior: When our birds are located in a bird room, you wind up in the position of more frequently reinforcing problem behavior. If you hear a blood-curdling scream, you don’t have the advantage of being able to see that this jungle sound was the result of playing with a bell. Instead, you have no choice but to dash in there to see who’s been injured. Since the birds live in relative isolation, your entrance can be a powerful reinforcer. When you show up as a result of noise, you are teaching your bird room birds to scream.

Amplification of Reproductive Hormones:  I have no proof for this next statement, so you will just have to take my word for it. Having a number of parrots in a bird room can amplify the impact of reproductive hormones in a phenomenon similar to contagion. It’s much the same thing as happens when you have to hospitalize an angry cat in a veterinary clinic. You may have three nice cats in the clinic. When you add the one angry cat, guess what? You now have four pissed off cats with which to deal. 

Beyond that, I also believe that one trigger for the production of reproductive hormones is a degree of “sameness” to the environment. If you want a budgie to stop her chronic egg-laying, one useful (albeit inconvenient) strategy is to move the cage into a different room of the house every day. If you want to decrease hormone production in a larger parrot, you will see the reflective behavior decrease when you offer more exposure to new situations – trips out of the house, an outdoor aviary, etc. If you want a bunch of really “hormonal” parrots, keep them in a bird room 24/7.

Less Available Enrichment: While we remain relatively unaware of this, our own movements and behavior provide a good deal of entertainment to our parrots. They enjoy watching and predicting our behavior and looking for opportunities to interact with us. They are deprived of all this enrichment when they remain in a bird room. Their bird room life also allows us to remain out of touch with their need for enrichment, as well as their reaction to enrichment.

Less Passive Flock Bonding: A study of parrot behavior reveals that they use body language as a way to solidify alliances. Bonded parrots will preen each other’s heads, feed each other in a form of social duet, and mirror each others movements.

A group of parrots lacking pair bonds still use body language and behavior to solidify looser flock bonds through the performance of parallel activities. They will all preen at the same time, roost as one, or forage together as soon as a meal has been delivered. These more subtle behaviors may seem insignificant to us, but they are extremely important to quality of life and a sense of security for our birds.

Due to their amazing adaptability, they include us in these activities when they are able to do so, while we might not even notice. They may go to the food dish when we sit down to eat. A parrot may choose to roost when we sit down to read a book. Many parrots preen when allowed to accompany their human into the bathroom for the morning routine. Parrots in bird rooms are deprived of this vital manner of creating connection.

Inability to Resolve Behavior Problems: As detrimental as the combination of all these factors can be, the worst thing about bird rooms from my perspective as a consultant is the difficulty of resolving behavior problems.  If your birds live most of the time in a bird room, you have a greatly diminished ability to influence their behavior.

To successfully resolve a behavior problem, you must take a constructional approach. This means that you must build (teach) other behaviors at the same time that you work to remove any reinforcement that might be present for undesirable behavior.

For example, if you want to solve a screaming problem, you can’t just ignore the problem noise. No one ever solved this problem simply by ignoring it. Instead, you must teach the bird to make pleasant sounds instead, through the use of positive reinforcement. If you want to solve a biting problem, you do have to modify your own behavior that results in the biting, but you also have to use positive reinforcement to re-establish a mutually trusting handling relationship.

Well guess what? You can’t change behavior that you can’t see. Thus, if your birds stay most of the time in the bird room, it is this reality that likely contributed to the development of the problem in the first place and will delay or make impossible its resolution.

Author and meditation expert Sharon Salzberg once said, “We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us – vs. – them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations.”

It struck me, when I found this a few days ago, that it applies exceptionally well to the topic at hand. If we can learn to practice fierce compassion towards our parrots, then we will develop greater appreciation for their unique qualities – flight and their distinctive social nature. Should we do so, we must then deconstruct practices that create isolation or deny freedom of movement for our birds. We must find a way to establish community with them in our homes in a manner that does not physically isolate them.

Doing so will, as the quote implies, lead to difficult situations. No matter. We have tools. We can use training and antecedent arrangement to solve these minor issues, rather than relying on practices that enforce that us vs. them approach to parrot keeping.

I agree with avian veterinarian Anthony Pilny that we need a new captive parrot paradigm. If you don’t like living with parrots, then why have them? If you do like living with parrots, then why have a bird room?

I would love to hear your comments. I’m sure this post has been unsettling for more than a few of you and perhaps upsetting to some. Please understand that I mean no judgment. However, some of the conditions under which companion parrots live make my heart hurt. It truly is time to examine the care-giving practices established in the 20th century and create together that new captive bird paradigm.

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

Photo Credit: Featured image photo is by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash.com

Resources:

Friedman, Ph.D., Susan. 2008. What’s Wrong with this Picture: Effectiveness is Not Enough. Good Bird Magazine. http://behaviorworks.org/files/articles/What’s%20Wrong%20With%20this%20Picture-Parrot.pdf

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. IAABC Position Statement on LIMA.

Wolfensohn, S., Shotton, J., Bowley, H., Davies, S., Thompson, S., & Justice, W. (2018). Assessment of Welfare in Zoo Animals: Towards Optimum Quality of Life. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI8(7), 110. https://doi:10.3390/ani8070110

Pellets: To Feed or Not to Feed

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

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

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

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

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

Nutrient Requirements for Parrots

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

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

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

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

The Default Diet

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

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

Problems with Seed Mixes

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

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

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

In Defense of Seed Mixes

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

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

Types of Formulated Diets

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

 Pelleted or Extruded Diets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguments Against Feeding Pellets

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

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

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

Argument: Pellets are boring.

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

Argument: Pellets do not allow for natural foraging behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Converting the Seed-Eating Parrot to Pellets

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

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

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

Once you have created your chop mix:

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

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

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

Feeding Other Foods

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

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

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

A Few Cautions

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lighting Needs: Could Your Parrot Be UV Deficient?

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

Harpo
Harpo Under Normal Room Lighting

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

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

Why Is Natural Light Important to Birds?

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

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

UV Light, Vitamin D, and Parrots

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

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

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

Three Options for Vitamin D

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality of Life

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

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

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

It’s A Need, Not a Want

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

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

Full Spectrum Bulbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outdoor Aviary and Other Options

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

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

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

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

ParrotAndFlowers Aviary.KrisPorter
Photo by Kris Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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