Wisdom from Avian Veterinarians

By Ann Brooks

Attending the annual Association of Avian Veterinarians conference is one of my greatest joys. While much of what is said involves a language beyond my knowledge base, I always learn something new. Here is a summary of my biggest takeaways from this year’s conference.

Thanks to the Grey Parrot Project initiated by Dr. Scott Echols, there is a growing body of evidence that a lack of exercise, sunlight and appropriate diet are highly detrimental to the long-term health of birds in captivity. These may seem like obvious statements, however proving their relationship to disease is easier said than done.

According to Dr. Echols, “a new technique involving radiographs (X-rays) is allowing researchers a means to clearly visualize bone density in birds. Preliminary evidence shows that birds flying outdoors in natural sunlight have better bone density than those housed indoors in small cages. In the attached pictures, cockatiel 1 has better bone density than cockatiel 2. Using the new imaging technique, one can readily see that cockatiel 1 has more red (indicating higher bone density) in the wing and leg bones.”

Since most birds don’t have the opportunity to fly or vigorously move, their bones start to disintegrate. In order to stay strong, bones need to have some stress. It is terrible to think that our birds are suffering in this regard, so we must find a way to get them moving. (For starters, provide more activities outside the cage, increase foraging opportunities, provide a wide variety of perches to encourage movement, and even offer flight when it can be accomplished safely).

The loss of bone structure is especially problematic for female birds in the “lay” mode. Unfortunately, many people touch their birds in sexually stimulating ways, which may encourage these hormonal responses. The healthiest relationship we can have with our companion birds is one that does not involve an excess of “petting” and mate-like behaviors.

Another common problem is nutrition. So many birds live on a diet of packaged seeds. Not only are these high in Omega 6’s (safflower, peanut, sunflower, corn), but most seed brands have very little nutritional value. Our parrots need more Omega 3’s, which can be found in fish oil, flax, pumpkin seeds, hemp, chia and walnuts. If you use flax oil, make sure to buy a very reputable brand, keep it in the refrigerator, and do not shake. And don’t forget to provide a wide variety of dark orange and green fruits and veggies. Here’s an interesting tidbit, if you have chickens, you can dramatically reduce reproductive cancer by including flaxseed as 10% of their diet.

From Drs Dahlhausen and Orosz, we learned that a very large number of birds are Avian Bornavirus positive (ABV), as many as 45% or more in some studies. If your bird is ABV positive, do not panic! Most of these birds remain healthy for their whole lives. Sometimes birds with ABV also develop PDD, but some birds that develop PDD are not positive for ABV.  So as you can see, it is a complicated issue that requires more research.

Possible PDD symptoms might include difficulty in digestion or problems with the nervous system (e.g. seizures). They usually experience some kind of of stressor that suppresses the immune system or alters its normal function as well. Some of these potential stressors include: concurrent infection with Campylobacter, extreme stress, avian gastric yeast, old age and/or reproductivity.  This is yet another reason why we should not sexually stimulate our birds by excessive petting, especially below the neck.  Just remember if your bird does develop PDD, there are ways to help. And if your bird is ABV positive this does not mean it will develop PDD!!

Drs Orosz Dahlhausen Costanzo2

Drs Susan Orosz, Robert Dahlhausen and Greg Costanzo

Another major health concern for birds in captivity is atherosclerosis. Countless birds die at a young age from this heart problem. Why?  Again — they don’t get enough exercise and they don’t have good diets. If we are going to have birds in our homes, we must learn to do better by them by providing healthy food and lots of mental & physical activities.

Lastly, there was another foraging study from UC Davis. Orange wing Amazons were fed an oversized pellet, similar to the size of the nut they eat in the wild. This pellet was made specifically for the study to see if the larger size caused eating activity time and manipulation to increase. In the wild, most parrots spend up to 60% of their day foraging. This means they have to find the food, pick the food, and then manipulate the food. In captivity, parrots usually spend 4 to 10% of their day eating.  So if we can make eating more complicated and physically challenging this will give birds more to do with their time and increase physical activity. The UC Davis researcher, Dr. Polley DVM, calls this “podomandibulation” because the Amazons use both their feet and beaks. This increase in activity helped to reduce stress and improve the welfare of the Amazons.

So, we know without a doubt that our companion parrots need and deserve better diets, more complex enrichment and absolutely more exercise!  What have you done for your parrot?

Introducing a new bird to the flock: A success story with a bumpy start

Many people interested in adopting a bird may already have one or more parrots. That was certainly the case for us. My husband fell in love with a Meyer’s parrot named Virgil during a visit to the Phoenix Landing adoption center in Asheville, NC. We already had two Pionus parrots and a Senegal, and the flock hadn’t grown since 2006. We were nervous about introducing a new bird to our existing flock, but decided to foster Virgil and give it a try.

Plan A: Our “no plan” first plan was a mistake

After the quarantine period, we started introducing Virgil to the flock. We made a few mistakes. We decided to simply bring him to the living room with another flock member to see what happened. This might work for some birds, but it did not work in this instance. During our first two attempts to introduce Virgil to another bird, he flew directly to the other bird and tried to land on them. The other birds were not keen on this at all, and flew out of the room.

We recognized that this particular approach was not working. So, we took a step backwards and developed a plan to introduce them more slowly, breaking down the process into smaller steps.

Defining our goals: What behaviors did we want to encourage?

We discussed what our ultimate goal was, behavior-wise, for the birds. The three birds we already had were able to socialize in the living room with us in the evenings peacefully. They explored separate play stands or stood on one of our knees, played with toys, and preened. We decided our goal was to have Virgil engage in similar behaviors in the living room at the same time. We wanted to reward him for remaining on a play stand or person, playing with toys, preening, or interacting with us. The behavior we did not want to encourage was him flying to the other birds.

To clip or not to clip

Clipping wings is a controversial topic among parrot owners, but we decided to clip Virgil’s wings during this transition period to slow him down if he decided to fly to another bird. We felt it would help in creating a history of positive experiences with him for the other birds, and we wanted all birds involved to have just that – positive experiences.

Plan B, Step 1: Introductions and treats

Virgil is inside his cage, receiving treats. Two other birds stand by, waiting their turn.

Virgil receives treats from inside his cage while two of the other birds wait their turn.

Now that we had our final goal established, we decided a good step toward that was to reward Virgil and the other birds for simply seeing one another and remaining calm. We decided that “calm” in this instance meant standing where they were, and not moving to get closer to or further away from one another. Body language would also be important.

For the first step, we wanted Virgil to sit on a perch inside his cage with his door closed while the other birds were in the room nearby. I had the other birds perch on me as I sat in front of Virgil’s cage. This went very smoothly. Every night for an entire week, I spent time sitting in front of Virgil’s cage with each of the other birds (sometimes two at a time), giving him a treat, and giving them a treat for simply being around one another and looking in one another’s direction. If there was any lunging, they would not get a treat. I never once had to deny them a treat, as everyone remained calm and focused on earning those treats.

Plan B, Step 2: Gradually increasing time together in the living room

For the next step, we wanted to Virgil to be in the same room with the birds for a very short period of time. Our plan was to reward them being in the same room and remaining calm for just a few seconds, and then gradually increase the amount of time they were in the same room. Virgil was brought into the room on the hand of his preferred person (my husband) while the other three birds were out. Everyone stayed where they were, and they all received a treat for doing so. Virgil was then removed from the room. He was brought back again a few minutes later. Everyone remained calm and stayed where they were, so they all received treats again. Because everyone continued to remain calm, we were able to quickly increase the amount of time he was out in the room with everyone else, rewarding all the birds every few minutes with treats for perching, preening, playing with a toy, or doing any of our desired behaviors. If anyone started to shift their weight forward, pull their feathers tight, or flutter their wings to signify that they were interested in flying to Virgil, or if Virgil signified he was interested in flying to another bird, no treats were delivered to that bird. Once their attention was redirected towards a toy or person again, they were rewarded with treats. We expected it to take a week or more to be able to have all the birds in the same room at the same time for as long as an hour. It actually only took us a weekend before we could have them out in the same room for an hour.


Virgil stands, relaxed, near two other flock members.

Virgil (far right) is now able to stand on one foot, relaxed, while two of the other flock members are near.

A few months have passed, and we are still able to have all birds out in the living room in the evening at the same time. Treats are always kept nearby, as we continue to reward them periodically for the desired behaviors of playing with toys, interacting with us, or being near one another in a positive manner. We want these behaviors to continue, so we continue to reward them. This series of steps worked for us nicely. We recognize that it may not work for everyone, as behavior is always a study of one. However, developing and implementing our Plan B resulted in the successful introduction of Virgil to the rest of the flock. I hope sharing what worked for us, as well as what didn’t, might help someone else create a plan that will help them successfully introduce a new bird to their flock.

Others have also had positive experiences introducing new flock members. What worked for you? Please feel free to share tips that worked for your flock in a comment or on the Phoenix Landing Yahoo Group, especially if you used positive reinforcement.


Behavior Workshop: Clicker Training for Parrots

Phoenix Landing hosts a number of parrot behavior workshops throughout the year. Last month, we re-presented “Clicker Training for Parrots” in Northern Virginia.

Clicker training is a fun way to interact with your bird, but it’s also a useful tool for addressing behavioral issues. Our September class provided  an introduction to the principles of operant conditioning and, specifically, how it applies to our interactions with our birds.

In addition to explaining how clicker training works, ideas for getting started, and strategies for overcoming training challenges, the class also focused on interactive learning with hands-on exercises designed to let participants work on clicker timing and shaping behaviors.

Below are the slides from the workshop.



Once you apply the principles of clicker training to your daily interactions — regardless of  your bird’s age or previous training — you will be amazed at how effectively you will be able to communicate with each other, how much faster you will build trust, and how quickly your parrot will learn tricks that delight and amaze.

To learn more about how you can build a more positive and fun relationship with your birds, please check the Phoenix Landing events calendar for upcoming classes.