Elaine Henley explains how to manage fear in Parrots.
Many Parrots’ caregivers report that their Parrots behave in a frightened or fearful manner when presented with novel objects or situations. Examples of this may include seeing a new toy, food, an unknown person, a new household object or when the location of a cage is changed; even when presented with a new cage or amended furnishings.
When a Parrot is frightened s/he may behave in an unusual manner, s/he may fly away; if flighted, stand still, or rock in a swaying motion, or even hiss and growl.
Extremely frightened Parrots may attack the object of their fear, or vocalise. Many caregivers may observe the Parrot’s feathers being held close to their bodies, pinned eyes or if crested (such as Cockatiels), these being erected.
Often caregivers are advised to either ignore their Parrot or talk softly to them when they observe their fear. Advice in many old books may include keeping the Parrot where s/he is until they learn to accept whatever it is that they are frightened of.
This may be referred to as flooding or gradually introducing whatever the Parrot is frightened of: desensitisation and counter conditioning (DS & CC). Very often this advice does not work, leaving caregivers frustrated and their Parrots more anxious and stressed.
So what is fear?
Fear is the word used to describe an individual’s emotional reaction to something that seems to be dangerous. The thing to remember about fear is that it may be real or imaginary.
It may be experienced by a group or an individual. It is possible that one individual in a group may be fearful, whilst others are not. When fear is experienced, it results in a strong physical reaction in an individual’s body; the amygdala (a small organ in the middle of the brain), kicks in and alerts the nervous system, activating the body’s fear responses.
Stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline are released and both blood pressure and heart rate increase as the body prepares literally for fight or flight.
Being fearful is a natural and biological state and it keeps one safe, so it is normal to feel fearful of novelty. However, whilst being fearful is normal, when that fear interferes with quality of life, then this may be a phobia.
A type of fear common in Parrots is neophobia, which is the fear of anything new. Some Parrots when presented with an unfamiliar object or situation, will choose to avoid it or retreat.
The Parrot may also experience panic and anxiety, a response that may last for several hours or even days. These Parrots are more prone to conditions such as feather destructive behaviours, aggression or mutilation.
Using dogs as an example, scientists and their caregivers know that the young dog or puppy must be exposed to a variety of early positive experiences at key stages in their young lives.
Those that are, will be most likely to grow up to be confident pets who have a positive approach to life; and, thus when confronted with a novel stimulus as adults are more likely to be accepting of this than those pups who do not.
The thing about Parrots is that scientists have not studied when their key stages are and if there are differences between species of Parrots.
What we do know is that those Parrots who are presented with novel stimuli as chicks, when at their breeders, are less likely to develop neophobia as adults. Likewise, those Parrots who never have their wings clipped are less likely to become neophobic as adults.
Interestingly, many caregivers report differences in levels of neophobia amongst species, with Grey Parrots being particularly more prone to this than other species. There may be many reasons for this, including the genetics of domestic bred Parrots.
The Grey Parrot is one of the most popular large Parrots kept as pets and thus may be subjected to poor rearing environments. Grey Parrots also eat a wide variety of foods in the wild, so show greater exploration, meaning that being cautious around new things and experiences is a sensible survival strategy.
How to help the frightened Parrot?
Purchase your Parrot from a caring and conscientious breeder who has allowed the chick to be parent reared, does not clip their wings and provides a novel and suitably challenging environment.
Introduce necessary change very slowly and gradually. This may be a new food, toy, person, cage or cage furnishing. In a previous blog, I wrote about how I introduced a new cage to my Timneh Grey, Sparky.
The aim being that the Parrot sees the novel stimulus from such a distance that s/he does not react. Repeat this exposure over the course of a few days before moving the object closer and closer. At any time, should a negative reaction ensue, move the object further away and begin from that distance once more.
In conclusion: being scared or fearful is normal for Parrots, as it is for us, but we can improve the situation for our Parrots by understanding why they may be scared and taking the slow road to help them.
Elaine Henley P.G.Dip CABC
Animal Behaviour Clinic
Full member Association of Pet Behaviour Counselors (APBC)
Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist (ABTC)
Certified Parrot Behaviour Consultant (IAABC)
Telephone: 01294 833764 or 07789112347