Pushing Limits, Testing Boundaries: Really?

As an adoption coordinator for Phoenix Landing, I help people navigate the challenges of living with parrots. I’ve learned a lot from families and birds over the years, and I’m still learning from the many people and parrots that I meet.

One of my goals is to give folks the tools to reduce the number of parrot bites.

People often make statements about their birds that, I must admit, baffle me.

“He’s just pushing the limits to see how much he can get away with.”
“She’s just testing boundaries, but she’ll soon learn who the boss is.”

To this I say, “Huh?”

The statements above are common ones when describing issues in child rearing. It’s natural for us to think of our birds as our children and to use our understanding of how to raise kids when we interact with parrots.

But birds aren’t children.

Birds are prey animals and we are predators.

Can you imagine a chicken testing boundaries with a fox, or a seal pushing the limits with a polar bear? How about seeing how far you can get with a mountain lion?

When a bird reacts by lunging, biting, or exhibiting body language that otherwise expresses discomfort, she is saying one thing, and one thing only: I am uncomfortable with this situation.

Please respect her clear communication, don’t force her to “toe the line,” and make trust building your top priority.

Teaching Henry to (finally!) use that tree

Getting your parrot to use a gym, tree, or other play area may take time. I recently trained my African gray to use a manzanita tree that I’ve had for years that no bird ever perched on.

Here’s how I did it.

1. I started with the tree a number of feet away from a T-stand that she uses regularly. I gave her time to accept the tree in this position.
2. I loaded the tree with her favorite toys, like cardboard cut into squares and hung on a chain.
3. Every few days, I moved the tree a few inches closer to her T-stand. It took about a month for me to move the tree so that it was right up against her T-perch. Each time I moved the tree, I watched to see if she was comfortable with the new position. Did she stand further away from the tree on her T-stand? Did she stop flying to and landing on the T-stand altogether? If she did, I moved the tree back an inch or two and waited a few days before trying again.
4. Over the course of a month, I moved the tree until it was right up against her T-stand. However, she still didn’t go on the tree.
5. I put some of her favorite toys on the tree so that she could reach them while still standing on the T-stand.
6. When I saw her play with the toy, I praised, praised, praised, and gave her a favorite treat (a bit of unsalted cashew).
7. I added more cardboard square toys on other tree branches, and other interesting toys too.

Success! One day, I came downstairs and there she was, standing on the tree like it was no big deal.

Why did this method work?

Because:

  • I watched her for signs of comfort/discomfort around this new object.
  • I moved the tree slowly and let her accept it at her own pace.
  • I made the tree valuable to her by covering it with her favorite toys.
  • I didn’t make a big deal out of it when she didn’t get on the tree. Birds can sense our frustration and if we fret about their actions (“Why aren’t you using this expensive tree I bought you? Why aren’t you using it RIGHT NOW?!?) Birds respond best to positive reinforcement and a calm approach.
  • I did make a big deal out of it when she got on the tree – she got a treat and praise.

Try it out, I hope it works for you.
See Henry enjoying the manzanita tree below, you can see the perch on her T-stand in the lower left.

What’s normal?

What do all of these “problems” have in common?

“I don’t understand what’s wrong with our parrot. Every time he sees us, he runs to the back of the cage trembling. If he gets out, he flies frantically around the room, as though he’s trying to escape. It’s like he’s scared of us.”
“Every time I try to pet my bird, he bites me.”
“My parrot screams at random times during the day. Really loudly! The neighbors are starting to complain.”
“Why can’t my bird just eat his food, and not throw it everywhere?”

These are not “problems” at all, but normal parrot behavior. Too often, our expectations don’t match the reality of parrot care taking, and the result is many birds lose their homes.

Caretakers can work with birds and the environment to minimize or eliminate these behaviors – the operative word being “work.”

What’s the key to understanding any parrot behavior or caretaker problem?

Parrots are prey animals. They are only a few generations removed from the wild.

Loud vocalizations, messiness, fear of predators (us), and many other behaviors that make parrots challenging animals are completely natural.

Conversely, the well-socialized bird is not ordinary. The well-socialized bird is like an athlete who works daily with a trainer to maintain his skills. This takes patience from both bird and caretaker. It takes respect, a keen eye for observation, and empathy.

It takes time.

As an adoption coordinator, I receive applications from new and experienced parrot people who wish to adopt a bird that wants to interact and is friendly. I’m never sure how to respond to this request.

Most birds don’t come fully loaded with Dog Mode. Most birds are normal.

Even a bird that is well socialized can quickly change when put in an environment where people don’t respect the parrot or respond to what the bird communicates.

The screaming terrified parrot is a bird who is acting normally. The parrot that perches on the hand is a miracle. Don’t take this wonder for granted. Don’t become jaded or complacent.

When a parrot steps on to your hand, marvel.

HORMONES: The Downside of the Good Life

Fern Van Sant, DVM
Presented by the Phoenix Landing Foundation
April 1, 2011

FernVanSant
THE BIOLOGY OF BIRDS AND THEIR ENVIRONMENTAL NICHE
Birds were not invented at the pet store. So to successfully care for a parrot, one must understand the bird’s biological needs, and strive to meet these needs above others when looking for guidance on bird care. Understanding a parrot’s biology is essential since they have evolved from a unique array of habitats such as a variety of altitudes, temperatures etc. Birds are very adaptive.

For example, many parrots are subtropical – living 30 degrees north or south of the equator. For those species, they do not have 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. Parakeets and cockatiels are good examples; they live further from the equator and are photoperiod responsive because of this. Their biological processes are triggered by the length of time these birds are exposed to sunlight. An increase in day length (light) signals abundance to these birds, and the time for mating. Water can also bring on mating behaviors, especially for birds from drought areas like cockatiels.
Tiels
A study by E.D. Jarvis proves that animals respond to certain environmental triggers by producing proteins in their brains. These proteins then trigger certain types of behavior associated with breeding (a male canary singing, for example). This is also called Behaviorally Driven Gene Expression. So a change in light, food availability, height of a potential nest, or width of a hole can all trigger breeding for wild parrots.

Cockatoos are easy birds to breed, while Amazons are not. Breeders discovered that Amazons require a very particular hole of a certain height and depth to breed. Some behaviors are inherited, like lovebirds stashing things under their wings.

Most parrots are NOT designed to consistently reproduce. They are low-end reproducers. But, without environmental constraints, parrots can be in a continuous breeding mode. As hens produce more chicks, the hen’s health suffers, as does the health of the later chicks in the clutch. Later-born chicks are much less viable. For example, 12 eggs in a year in captivity might be the bird’s lifetime norm in the wild.

PSITTACINE EVOLUTION
Parrots have evolved over 30+ million years. There are 332 species of parrots, with three subfamilies (Psittacine, Cacatuinae, and Loriinae).

Two-thirds of parrots are neotropical Psittacines (189 species) – those who live in central South America and the Caribbean islands.

The other third of parrots are found in Africa, India and South Asia (34 species) and Australia, Indonesia, and South Asia (109 species).
Noah
Parrots are flexible in our homes because they are flexible in their natural environments of forest, swamp, and dry land. For example, mitred conures are found all over the US, and the Maui conure, which started as 2 birds, has now grown to a flock of 100.

MYTH OF THE GENERIC PARROT
This myth assumes that one size fits all response to questions of proper diet, housing, behavior and other issues. However, each species and each individual will require care specific to their needs. There are three kinds of behaviors: innate, learned, and reproductive.

Parrot’s innate behaviors are for flight, nest selection, and vocalization. Parrots learn other behaviors, from interacting with the flock. For example, taking off is instinctive, landing and navigating is learned. Some colony nesters, like conures, may want to be more connected to you.

Reproductive behaviors include: pair bonding; vocalizations/duets; mutual preening; cavity seeking; nest building; sexual regurgitation; territorial defense; and copulation.
Lovies
Do you know what a bird looks like when they are soliciting sex? Here is an example of one approach:

ENDOCRINE REGULATION
The hypothalamus starts the process by sending message to the “master gland” the pituitary gland. The pituitary, in turn, produces hormones to send to target organs, the gonads. The gonads are inactive at times, small and seasonally involuted. Females have one ovary on the left side, to lighten the load for flight.

The pineal gland is a day/night clock, sensing light which drives base physiology. Light is taken in through the eyes, the pineal gland and a third apparatus in the brain that is still unknown. This mystery apparatus has been proven to exist because birds who are blind and have no pineal gland still respond to light.

The Limbic system is the part of the brain that runs bonding, emotional responses, and attachment forming.

The species-specific hormonal cascade, from hypothalamus to pineal gland to gonad, happens in all birds.

Testosterone is highest in a male during nest building according to a UC Davis study.

ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGERS
Environmental triggers for endocrine events include light, molting, migration, and perhaps lunar cycles. Breeding and molting are biologically expensive and diametrically opposed. They do not happen at the same time.

Due to these factors, umbrella cockatoos do best with a very ordered, predictable day/night cycle.

Seasonal migration – great green macaws (also called Buffon’s macaws) migrate, as do Patagonian conures and smaller conures. These birds all migrate up and down in elevation. Tiny grass parakeets migrate 120 miles across the water to Tasmania to breed.

A hormonal trigger (as opposed to a metabolic one) produced by the thyroid takes parrots from breeding to molting. Primary feathers molt at a different time than those feathers on the bird’s trunk.

Amazons and macaw share the same nest hole at different times throughout the year.
Nest
Birds love warm food because of a thermal sensory apparatus on the roof of their mouth. When we give parrots warm food, we are simulating the actions of their mate.

Vocalizations and other hormonal triggers such as pair bonding, abundant light and food, or nesting can lead to CHRONIC HORMONAL STRESS.

Cavity seeking is also a result of the hormonal cascade. The bird may get on the floor underneath furniture, or go into a closet.
nesting lovie
When a parrot is well fed, has nest material, and has a lengthened photo period, the hormonal cascade can begin.

Copulation is initiated by lower back scratching.

Determinate layers have a specific number of eggs in a clutch. Budgies and cockatiels are non-determinate layers, laying eggs as long as the environment supports it. This causes a serious health risk to them.

Birds who have been bred are naturally passing on the genes of productive breeding. In other words, the birds that survive the breeding process are going to be more inclined to reproduce.

LIMITING FACTORS
Parrots in the wild are low-end producers, and certain environmental constraints will limit their urge to breed.

Food availability is not a limiting factor for neotropical birds (food is pretty consistently available around the equator). Neotropical birds are limited by the availability of nest sites. Charles Munn did a study on scarlet macaws and found that adding more nest boxes to the birds’s environment resulted in more chicks.

However, the availability of food for those birds native to Australia, Africa and Indonesia can trigger or constrain their desire to breed. Seasonal abundance and drought is a limiting factor to non-neotropical birds. For example, goffins cockatoos in Australia struggle to find food and water during the drought. When food comes during the rainy season, they are ready to breed. They are designed for this kind of seasonal stress.

LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
Birds that are in a chronic state of hormonal stress can exhibit several different results.

Clinical presentation of birds with hormonal issues (what the vet sees) include:
Feather picking
Prolapse
Screaming
Shredding
Territorial defense and aggression
Elevated mucus production in proventriculus, which can cause continuous vomiting and regurgitation
Degenerative conditions such as: osteoporosis; fractures; calcium and vitamin D3 deficiencies.

Estrogen stimulates the blood vessels. In the wild, a bird regulates its temperature thru flight. However, thermal regulation problems in the wing webs and legs can be a problem for any bird in our homes. These areas (wing webs and legs) help the bird to heat and cool because they are highly vascular (contain a lot of blood vessels). The inside of the legs has large vessels. An increase in estrogen causes these areas to flush with blood. Without the proper ability to thermal regulate, a bird may become hot and flushed in these areas, which can also lead to feather picking.
plucking grey
African Psittacines often develop feather destructive behavior at 9-14 months because they are over-stroked. They do not learn to fledge and fly as they would in the wild where their parents would make them leave the nest.

SOLVING THE PROBLEM: RETURNING AN OVERLY HORMONAL BIRD TO NORMAL
Just because we think a bird loves something, doesn’t mean we should provide it. We should only provide things that are in the bird’s best interest, not ours. Examples are over-stimulation through petting and stroking, foods that contain phyto-estrogens (sweet potatoes, soybeans).
Jazzy
Try “resetting” the bird by putting her in a novel environment.

Part of the problem is that vigorous, healthy parrots who are not driven by the need to breed are more difficult to live with; they are more demanding to keep them occupied. They are full of healthy energy!

When the vet does a physical exam, it starts with a detailed history.

Hormonal problems can lead to plucking, which can lead to dermatitis. The feathers are designed to, among other things, protect the skin. Skin is not designed to be exposed. If your bird has this condition, be sure that the bird thoroughly dries after any bathing. It is especially important that the wing webs are dry.

THERAPIES
Therapies depend on each species, since they have evolved from different parts of the world (wet/dry; amount of light, etc).

The most important therapies include adding environmental constraints, just as it occurs in the wild. These include:
– Limiting shredding;
– Curtailing cavity seeking;
– Limiting physical contact (less petting!!);
– Adjusting feed schedules, such as limited food or fasting in the afternoons;
– Exercise!! More exercise, even for the elderly; and
– Spending time outdoors, especially in flight aviaries when possible.
Hope
Some short-term remedies, but not cures, can include:
Lupron can be given as a temporary solution. It down-regulates the gonads, but Lupron is expensive and it doesn’t work that long. Lupron sits on the binding site on the gonads, and prevents the hormones from landing and proteins from binding. It is a remedy, not a cure.

HCG injections are anti-inflammatory. Helps itchy macaws. It is also not a long-term cure because the immune system recognizes it and it stops working.

A more promising cure, Deslorelin, comes from Australia. It is an implant that lasts 8 months and is successful in hormonal birds.

RECOMMENDED SUPPLEMENTS and DIETS
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Can be given in the form of palm oil (Sunshine Factor recommended), for birds that eat palm oil (like African Greys); and flax oil for birds who do not eat palm oil. Another good supplement for all birds is Avian Vegi-Dophilus, a probiotic specifically for birds.

Pellets are not recommended for birds from arid environments such as parakeets, lovebirds, and cockatiels. Pellets are hard on their kidneys and can cause gout. Avi-cakes are a good option for these birds.

Yet Another Cautionary Tale

Lories are brilliantly colored, playful, high-energy birds: easy to love, but difficult to clean up after. I’ve fostered lories in the past, but never adopted one. Their nectar-heavy diet results in frequent, sticky droppings. Too much work for me.

But, on the rare occasion that we have one relinquished to us, I am always curious about the bird, and wish I had enough time to care for one properly. The bird recently relinquished to Phoenix Landing sounded wonderful: friendly, and he’d even had an exam with an avian vet a few weeks before. He was being given up to Phoenix Landing for the same reason that 80 percent of the birds that come to us share: The caretaker no longer had the time to care for him. Remembering that Debbie, our MD adoption coordinator, had mentioned a family looking for a lory, I sent the information on, and very soon afterward, we had found a foster family.

We arranged for the lory to be dropped off at a recent event held on a Saturday, and I met the relinquisher outside. She was obviously distressed, sad to be giving up her companion of almost 10 years, but she knew it was for the best. She brought out bags of supplies for him, including lots of toys. He also had a powdered lory nectar diet, and she emphasized that he only consumed in the liquid form, it couldn’t be served in powder. She also said that he had increased his regurgitation lately, and that it was sexual behavior, and that the problem had gotten worse the less time she was able to spend with him.

I looked at the incredible, gorgeous creature in the sunlight. He looked to be the picture of health. I envied Jane and Pete, his new foster family, getting to share their life with something so splendid.

He regurgitated when I looked at him. He pretty much regurgitated any time someone came up to the cage. I guess he just likes everyone, I thought.

Jane took the bird home, and I thought we’d had yet another happy landing. I was certain they would adopt the lory, and I hoped she’d send out pictures soon. I really wanted to get a chance to paint a picture of that bird.

The next morning, Debbie called with some bad news: The lory was being rushed to Pender Exotics in Fairfax. He hadn’t eaten or passed food since Jane had picked him up, and he was constantly vomiting. I was confused: the relinquisher had told me the behavior was sexual, so that’s how I’d seen it. The foster family had not had the bird for even a day. But could we all be overreacting? Was this bird just stressed? He had looked so healthy.

The more Debbie and I talked about the bird’s behavior, the more alarming it sounded.

Once the bird made it to Pender, I started communicating with the vet on-call, Dr. McDonald. She suggested we start with an X-ray, to see if anything was obviously blocking his digestive tract and preventing food from getting through. The results of the X-ray were inconclusive: It appeared as though there was some strange gas patterns visible in his digestive tract, but that was all.

The next test to run was a barium series.

A barium series is a set of X-rays taken of a bird’s digestive system as a dye passes through it. Using this test, vets can see how much and how quickly food passes through the bird, and if there are any obstructions. The test takes hours to run, but it was crucial to find an obstruction (if one existed) before proceeding with medication to help food pass more quickly through the bird.

Late Sunday afternoon, Dr. McDonald called with the results: the lory was passing some, but not all, of the barium. She suspected a probable hernia and possible ulcerations in the stomach, as the syringe used to give the lory the barium had some blood on it after she administered the medicine. However, they wanted to keep the lory overnight and have Dr. Davis pick up care in the morning.

The next day, Dr. Davis called, and, after reviewing the results of the barium test and the X-ray, and considering the fact that the bird was still vomiting, she recommended exploratory surgery.

This was a really hard call to make. The surgery would be over $1, 000, and both Debbie and I agreed that we needed more information and another opinion before we could pursue this option. Jane kindly offered to help do whatever it took to get the little bird well, as she’d already come to care for him, and though the financial investment was a concern, it wasn’t my biggest one.

Surgery was risky, introducing additional stress on an already compromised animal, raising the chance of infection, and then there was that word “exploratory.” The surgery was no guarantee the vets would be able to help the bird get better. Frankly, it didn’t sound to me like he would make it through the procedure.

We decided to move him to a vet closer to Jane, and, in the process, get a second opinion. We needed a few days to arrange a space at the next vet hospital. Dr. Davis said that they could keep him stable for a day or two.

We made arrangements to get him moved, and hoped for the best.

Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good, and, sadly, Pender Exotics called to tell me the lory died in his sleep at 3:30 on Tuesday morning. Phoenix Landing had not had this bird in legal custody for three full days yet.

I talked to Dr. Davis early Tuesday, and she said he was an incredibly sweet and well socialized bird who they were very sorry to lose.

But now, we had to make a choice, should we do a necropsy? We had already spent $900 on care for this bird. But we had to know why the lory died, to make sure it was nothing contagious, even though Jane had practiced good quarantine in her home. It was vital for us to learn what had claimed this beautiful bird’s life.

Dr. Davis performed the procedure Tuesday afternoon, and then she called me with the results.

A parrot’s digestive tract starts with the mouth, goes into the crop, then into the stomach, which has two parts, the glandular proventriculus, and the muscular ventriculus (also called the gizzard). A massive wad of thread or material filled the bird’s proventriculus entirely, and partially filled the ventriculus as well, causing a hernia as the GI tract was squeezed and forced into an unnatural position. His kidneys, brown in a healthy bird, where white and had an excess of uric acid crystals. Dr. Davis said there was nothing that could have been done to save this bird.

Dr. Davis said she has seen this happen to other birds too, those that like to pick on thread or fabric. If the bird ingests tiny pieces, a mass can form that plugs the bird’s stomach. Unfortunately, he would not have survived any surgery, and the condition had been around for a while.

This experience has been heartbreaking, but it’s taught me many important lessons.

Don’t be so quick to accept that a description of a condition is the only possible explanation. What had been identified as sexual regurgitation was clearly not that to Jane. She saw a bird who is vomiting, and she reacted exactly the right way.

It has also taught me to be more vigilant about fabric, thread and material in general. Jane looked through the bird’s toys, and did see an obvious culprit, a small dishtowel hanging in the cage like a toy.

Know your bird. Watch what he plays with, and how he plays. If toys are missing pieces, find the pieces. If you don’t find the pieces, throw the toy away, no matter how much it cost you, or how much he likes it. My guess is that the washcloth was the bird’s favorite toy.

Know the difference between regurgitation related to sexual behavior and vomiting. Foster parent Pete who helped transport the lory to the vet, reported that the bird was trying desperately to eat, but vomited everything. If the bird isn’t ingesting any food and isn’t producing any droppings, the problem is serious. We have no way of knowing how long this bird had been swallowing the bits of fabric that filled his stomach and eventually killed him, but it was probably months.

Finally, I am always amazed when I think of all of the “behind the scenes” work at Phoenix Landing. It takes dedicated volunteers, lots of time, and lots of money to help parrots.