by Lisa Radosta DVM, DACVB & Alison Okell BS
Birds enrich our lives, but do we enrich theirs? Are we doing everything to make sure that they are happy and well adjusted? When I see birds with behavior problems such as screaming, biting or feather damaging, there are generally lots of deficits with management. Management changes are some of the simplest things to implement and they pack a powerful punch. Read on to find out how to give your bird a more relaxing and happy environment.
Does your bird love his house? Make sure that his cage is safe and stimulating.
Your bird will be spending a lot of time in his cage so placement is very important. Parrots are generally social animals with a strong flight response. Your goal as a good bird parent is to provide a safe, socially stimulating environment. Place your bird’s cage in a main living area, but make sure that it is situated in a way that gives him a safe place to hide. You can also provide a hiding spot for him within the cage if a suitable place is not available in your home. For best results, think like a parrot. Look out your window or around your house. Think about how you would feel if you were a cockatiel and you could view a hawk each day out the window next to your cage, but you couldn’t escape! You might be a little anxious too! While it is good for your bird to be able to see outside and be exposed to natural light there are also predators outside, such as raptors and cats that can cause stress to your parrot. If he has a safe spot in his cage where he can hide, he can enjoy the environment when he desires without feeling threatened.
Variety is the spice of life! Spice up your bird’s life with a change of scenery.
How would you feel if you ate, slept, worked and played in one room? Add on to that high intelligence and energy and you have a recipe for a lot of behavior problems. Birds need to move around the house to play and interact with different environments. You can safely do this be either monitoring your bird or setting up safe places around the house for him to play. Some birds like to shower with you. Some like to spend time outdoors in an aviary (be sure to always monitor your bird and keep her safe from ALL predators). Some birds just need a play gym in a different room in your house.
Teach your bird to learn.
Positive reinforcement training builds a strong relationship with your bird. It helps to reduce anxiety by adding structure, keeping his brain busy and giving him special time with you. Clicker training is a great way to train a bird, especially a fearful one. Clicker training can help your bird learn new behaviors and focus his energy on something positive. Birds offer desirable and undesirable behaviors very quickly. Mere humans can’t be expected to keep up with the energy level of the average parrot. Clickers even the playing field substantially.
In a nutshell, clicker training allows you to tell your bird exactly when he is correct and reward him even when you are not standing next to him. When the clicker is paired with a treat, it becomes very powerful to the bird. When your bird hears the click, he knows that what he was doing at that exact moment was correct. Then, you can walk over and hand him a treat. When clicker training, the timing of the CLICK is what is important, not necessarily the TREAT. Your bird is capable of learning many behaviors like speaking on cue, waving, stepping up and opening his wings just to name a few. This interaction and learning is an essential key to having a happy healthy bird. For more information on clicker training, go to www.clickertraining.com.
Follow these steps to get started:
Choose your tools. You will need your bird’s favorite treat and a clicker. There are lots of clickers to choose from so do your research and pick the one that works best for your parrot.
Pair the clicker with your bird’s favorite food by clicking the clicker and giving the bird a treat. Do this until your bird looks at you when you click. Then, you know that he has made the positive association between the clicker and food.
Before you teach a new behavior, hone your clicker skills by seeing how many positive behaviors you can capture in ½ hour. Each time that your bird does something you like-doesn’t scream, plays with his toys, flaps his wings, talks to you click and treat. You will be amazed at what he starts to offer!!
Now, get up and teach your bird some tricks!!
Will work for food! Foraging toys enrich your bird’s life.
If you only do one thing to enrich your bird’s life, this should be it! Foraging is extremely important in treating anxiety disorders in birds.
For example, it has been shown to decrease feather damaging behavior (previously known as feather picking). Foraging involves hiding food in toys, homemade or store bought, so that your bird has a more natural way to eat his food. How does your bird get his food? Does he eat it out of a bowl? Boring!!
Foraging involves hiding your bird’s favorite treats or a portion of his diet in objects so that he must use his beak and feet to manipulate the object to get the food. You can make simple foraging toys out of things that you have available in your house; for example, you can hide your bird’s favorite treats in newspaper and cardboard tubing so that your bird must have to pull apart the item to find the treats. Aren’t crafty? There is a whole world of puzzle toys for birds available at pet supply stores and online. Always remember when introducing a new foraging toy to make it easy for your bird to use. When your bird learns how the foraging toy works, you can make it more difficult for him. As your bird becomes more engaged in the foraging toy, you can make them more difficult for him to use, which will also increase the amount of time he is spending foraging through out the day.
While the exact number of hours spent foraging depends on the species of parrot, you can bet that your parrot would spend more time searching for food if he was wild than he does at your house. The best way to determine how long your individual bird should spend foraging is to research the amount of time that he would do so in the wild. For example, Puerto Rican Amazon Parrots, spend 4-6 hours per day foraging. By providing your bird with foraging options, you will keep him stimulated and active throughout the day.
Keep your bird busy! Rotate your bird’s toys for maximum stimulation
Birds are very intelligent creatures that need constant stimulation and interaction. Unfortunately, most of us work or at least have occasion to leave our homes without our birds each day. If the only fun thing that your bird has in her life is you, there is a risk that she will become hyperattached to you. While we want our birds to love us, we also want them to be independent so that they are not distressed when they are separated from us. Providing enrichment to your bird can be done a number of different ways. You can provide toys to chew on, tear apart or make noise with, music for him to listen to and interactions with family members. Try to give your bird 1 new project daily per cage/play area. This doesn’t mean that your bird only has one toy in her cage. Quite the contrary. Her cage or play areas should be filled with toys, foraging or otherwise. She should get a different one each day and one should be removed from rotation. The new toy can be new or an old toy that your bird hasn’t seen in a while. A good general rule is to take toys out of your bird’s environment once she stops playing with them regularly. Leave the toy out of rotation for at least 7 days.
Many parrots are frightened of the toys themselves so be patient and put the new toy in the far corner of the cage (away from your bird’s safe place and let her approach when she is ready. Finally, while birds can repeat words, they can’t express their likes and dislikes. Be prepared that your bird will like 50-75% of the toys that you purchase. She simply won’t like some of the toys that you buy. You will get to know what she likes as you offer more things and your success rate will go up.
Did you get enough sleep? Make sure that your bird gets enough shut-eye.
Don’t you feel different if you fall asleep on the couch watching television versus when you fall asleep in your comfy bed? Well your bird does too. Many of us have night cages for our birds, however, they are in high traffic areas of the house. Just because your bird’s cage is covered, it doesn’t mean that he is able to sleep any more than you can sleep when the television is blaring and you put a blanket over your face. If the television is on and people are moving through the area of the house where his cage is, he probably isn’t sleeping. Birds should have a separate sleep cage in a quiet room where they can sleep comfortably. Just as in people, lack of sleep can contribute to behavior problems in birds such as aggression, attention seeking behavior (screaming) and anxiety related behaviors.
A relaxed happy parrot will vocalize, eat hungrily, preen his feathers and solicit attention from you. Incorporating all of these tips into your bird’s life will help your bird to have the best life possible as your family member.