Here is how to deal with stress triggers in Parrots.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness among both veterinary professionals and Parrot caregivers that Parrots may become stressed and therefore exhibit unusual, unpredictable, or abnormal behaviours during events such as Christmas, Bonfire Night, or other large family gatherings.
They may even exhibit odd behaviour during or after lockdowns due to Covid 19 restrictions. What is less known is that, at other times of the year, Parrots may become overexposed to too many mild stressors, in which case they may display unusual or abnormal behaviours as their capacity to cope with the stressors is reduced. Behaviourists refer to this phenomenon popularly as trigger stacking.
The undesirable behaviours commonly seen in Parrots that are trigger stacked may include loud vocalization, feather destructive behaviour, compulsive behaviours– including sexual behaviour such as regurgitation, digging, flooring, and cage substrate– and aggression towards conspecifics, other household pets, or caregivers.
A trigger may be an addition to the environment that causes Parrots to decrease their ability to cope with the presentation of that trigger, or too many triggers which decrease the Parrots’ coping ability further and render them unable to maintain emotional control. While not triggers per se, other changes that pets experience may add an additional layer of stress.
For example, these include changes in routine, unexpected caregiver absences, change to time out of cage, unknown visitors, a sudden change in temperature, and/or the arrival of a new baby or pet into the household, or the addition of too many new toys.
Certainly, there are some Parrots that are genetically less able to cope with stress than others. However, not all stress is bad, and it is important to remember that the adaptive purpose of a physiological stress response is to promote survival during flight- or- fight situations.
Case Study– Tinker:
Tinker is a 22-year-old, DNA tested male Grey Parrot who had lived with his caregiver for 20 years. He shared his home with a 28-year-old DNA tested female Grey Parrot. The two Parrots were housed at opposite ends of the lounge in their own cage, and there was not a great deal of interaction between them.
Their primary caregiver and partner had been out of the house working during the day, with evenings and weekends spent with the Parrots. A house move, retirement, and the addition of a rehomed dog who had behavioural problems led to Tinker’s becoming stressed within his environment.
This manifested itself as increased chewing of furniture and soft furnishings and aggression.
We changed Tinker’s environment by giving him the prime view out of the window, the addition of a cardboard box with tissue to shred (his caregiver had incorrectly been told that giving cardboard boxes would encourage sexual behaviour), securing the dog in the kitchen with no access to the lounge, and structured interactions with both caregivers.
By giving structured interactions with one or both of the caregivers, Tinker no longer had to compete with either his feathered or fur companion, as he learned that he would get attention and know when this could be expected. Within weeks, the unwanted behaviours had reduced to normal and acceptable levels.
Case study– Cody.
Cody is a 6-year-old Scarlet Macaw who has lived with his family since he was 14 weeks of age. He also shares his home with two dogs that are now elderly. Cody has a large cage in a separate room of the house.
When he was younger, he spent more time out of his cage, but gradually he has spent more time alone in his cage.
There are few toys in his cage, and he is fed two times a day when he joins his human flock for breakfast and dinner; no food is left in his cage. At the same time as the arrival of a new puppy, Cody’s flock calls changed to an alert screech. This made being with him in the same room difficult, as the noise was so loud; and, consequently, he began to spend more time on his own.
Cody was taken to an avian vet to rule out any underlying medical reasons for the alert screaming. Once he was given a clean bill of health, we implemented the following environmental changes. First, the new dog was kept away from the family area when Cody is out of his cage and in the family area.
Second, food is now available in the large cage all day. Third, another cage has been placed in a study so that Cody can be with his caregivers when they are working from home. Time with his caregivers when they are working will be on an intermittent schedule, so that we do not create an expectation for Cody to be out of his main cage or with his caregivers and, when this does not occur, to frustrate or distress Cody.
Within weeks, the unwanted behaviour had decreased.
Case study– Winston.
Winston, a 12-year-old DNA male tested Scarlet Macaw that had eight previous homes, presented with compulsive regurgitating behaviour in the presence of his new caregiver, who perceived this behaviour has been sexually motivated.
Whenever Winston behaved like this, his caregiver would immediately pick him up and put him back in his cage, and then cover his cage for a period of up to 30 minutes.
Case history revealed that when Winston was taken away from the other pets into another room, the unwanted behaviour decreased and/or ceased to happen. His caregiver believed that this punishment was working, as the unwanted behaviour stopped, but he was confused as to why it returned every time Winston was brought into the main living area.
Winston lived in close proximity to the other pets in the household including two dogs, four rabbits, three other Parrots, and a gecko; the household was noisy and chaotic.
Winston had had his wings clipped, so he was unable to fly and therefore choose where he wished to be; he was completely reliant upon his caregiver to take him from room to room.
Changing Winston’s environment to allow him to choose to have privacy and time away from the other household pets further reduced the unwanted behaviour to normal and acceptable levels.
Winston was given the opportunity to choose a long time in the outdoor aviary; and, inside, his cage was placed in the spare bedroom which none of the other pets could access.
When caregivers seek advice for their Parrots’ unusual or abnormal behaviours, it is essential that a comprehensive case history be taken to identify whether or not the environment that the Parrot is been kept in and other potential triggers are initiating and maintaining the behaviour.
Sometimes, looking at the Parrot’s environment through its eyes rather than our own can be helpful, as this helps us to identify changes, however small that may be unsettling to the Parrot and make appropriate modifications to the environment.
Of course, when caregivers are unable to identify any environmental triggers on stress triggers, they should seek help from a Clinical Animal Behaviourist.
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